Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

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Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood Page 9

by Rebecca Wells

Long before the white man showed up, the Mighty Tribe of Ya-Yas, a band of women strong and true and beautiful, roamed the great state of Louisiana. Leopards slept with us and bears fed us honey from their paws and fish jumped up into our hands because they wanted to be our food. The trees were so thick that we could travel from New Orleans to Shreveport on treetop, and we did, hundreds of Ya-Ya Indians traveling on the tops of trees.

  Our mother was a black she-ape named Lola, who found us in a cave at the beginning of time and raised us like her very own children. We loved her like a mother. People didn’t mess with the tribal Ya-Ya sisters.

  But then Hurricane Zandra, the hugest hurricane known to man, came and ripped all the trees out by their roots and turned all the streams into rivers and killed everybody, including our mother, Lola. Only four of us survived. Everywhere we turned, evil alligators tried to eat us. There was nowhere to hide because those alligators could crawl from water to land and be just as mean in either place. We were starving so bad that our bones were sticking out, and we didn’t sleep for forty days. Finally we were so weak we just gave up.

  The alligators rejoiced and crawled up to where we lay helpless. They crawled so close that we looked right into their ugly old eyes and saw the light of the moon reflected. We tried everything we knew, but our strength was gone. Then from behind the moon came a gorgeous lady. We could see her from where we lay on our deathbeds. She looked down and saw we were hanging by an eyelash over the canyon of doom! And the Moon Lady shot silver rays from her eyes so hot and mighty that those alligators were burned to a crisp right in their sleazy tracks! Fried those ugly critters sunny-side up, right there on the road. We could hear them sizzling.

  And the Moon Lady said, “You are my daughters in whom I am well pleased. I will always keep my Divine Eyes peeled for you.”

  We, the Ya-Yas, had lost our jungle home, and our town does not realize we are royal, but secretly we all know our history and we will be loyal to our tribe forever and ever, in sickness and in health. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. The End.

  Then I look at everyone in the eyes and say: “Now it is official: we are from here on out to be known as Ya-Yas!” And everybody starts clapping.

  “Some of that kind of sounds like it came from the Bible,” Necie says.

  “Do not question the Mistress of Legend,” I say.

  “Yeah,” Teensy chimed in. “The Bible doesn’t own those words.”

  “Never mind,” Necie says. “Would yall care for some fudge?”

  “Why, thank you, Mistress of Refreshment,” I say.

  And we all bite into big chunks of chocolate pecan fudge.

  “I hate those old alligators,” Caro says, then looks in the direction of the bayou.

  “Uh,” Necie says. “Yall don’t think there are any alligators in this bayou, do you?”

  “Maman put a gris-gris on all the alligators behind our house,” Teensy says. “We don’t have to worry. Maman is the one who gave us our name! She’s the one always saying, ‘Gumbo Ya-Ya, gumbo ya-ya!’ ”

  “That’s us,” Necie says.

  “Exactement!” Teensy says. “From here on out to the end of time, we will be known as The Ya-Yas! Nobody can take our name away!”

  Then Teensy whips the empty oatmeal boxes out of her paper sack, and we all beat on them. And while we drum, we yell out to the night and the woods and the fire that we are now The Ya-Yas. Then Necie, the Mistress of Names, formally gives all of us our Ya-Ya Indian names that we have chosen ourselves. Mine is Queen Dancing Creek. Caro’s is Duchess Soaring Hawk, and Necie’s is Countess Singing Cloud. Each time Necie pronounces our new names, she sprinkles us with water from an old RC bottle with a hole punched in the top that she borrowed from her mama’s ironing board.

  Teensy has been keeping her Indian name a secret from us for weeks. Finally when it’s her turn, she hands Necie an envelope, all secret-like. Necie opens the envelope, looking for Teensy’s name, and when she sees it, her eyes get big as Popeye’s and she starts blushing from head to foot. For a minute Necie doesn’t say a word. You can hear a whippoorwill calling from far away somewhere, and little crackling sounds from Caro’s fire.

  Then Necie turns back to Teensy, who is grinning even bigger than ever. “I now name you Princess Naked-as-a-Jaybird.”

  The Princess goes wild.

  “Hot-cha-cha!” Teensy screams, and starts spinning around in circles. She rips off her nightgown and makes us take off ours too. Necie tries to chicken out, so Teensy and I have to take off her gown for her.

  “This might be a mortal sin, yall,” she says.

  “Yeah!” I tell her. “A Royal Ya-Ya Mortal Sin!”

  “Everybody ready for ceremonial paint?” Teensy asks, with one of her bad looks.

  “What?” we all say. This is not in the program, but the Ya-Ya tribe plays things by ear.

  Teensy reaches into her sack and pulls out a bunch of Genevieve’s Max Factor of Hollywood tubes and pots of color, and pencils and lipsticks, and oh all kinds of lovely little items that Mother thinks are vulgar.

  Teensy hands me a pot of red rouge. Caro gets a pot of brown color, Necie gets lipstick, and Teensy has the pencils. We take turns drawing on each other until we could pass for full-blooded Injuns. Red and brown streaks across our foreheads and black stars on our cheeks, and then Teensy has the idea of painting our stomachs and chests too. I draw a black line down the center of my body, and I rub lipstick all over one side and leave the other side regular skin color. Teensy draws lipstick in circles around her titties!

  “Necie,” Teensy says, “take your hands away from your titties. We’ve all seen them before. They are nothing new.”

  If that isn’t enough, old Teensy pulls out the necklaces and earrings that Mother made us take off the Negro Cuban Virgin.

  “Ah!” I call out. “The Secret Ya-Ya Jewels, lost all these centuries, and only recently found by Princess Naked-as-a-Jaybird, world-famous lady archaeologist!”

  We all scramble to put on the jewels, and pretty soon we are following Teensy, all slapping our thighs and running and whooping, “Hi-ho, Silver!”

  Then we stop dancing to prick our thumbs with the sewing needle. The Mistress of Fire holds the needle under the flame of a match, and then we each take turns letting Caro draw a tiny bead of blood.

  Raising our hands above our heads, we rub our thumbs together and recite our oath: “I am a member of the royal and true tribe of Ya-Yas. No one can come between us and no one can break away, because now we have the same blood. I do solemnly swear to be loyal to my sister Ya-Yas, and to love and look out for them, and never forsake them through thick and thin, until I take my last human breath—”

  But of course, instead of “breath,” Teensy goes and says “breast.”

  She says, “Until I take my last human breast.” And she says it loud just to be bad.

  My heart is beating so hard I can see it move my chest up and down. And I can see the same thing in Teensy’s and Caro’s chests. All our eyes are shining.

  “Now,” Teensy instructs us, “everybody lick the blood off your thumbs.”

  I look at her. This wasn’t in the plan.

  Teensy goes ahead and licks, though, and so I do too. I flick my tongue lightly over the dot of blood on my thumb.

  “Now, swallow!” I tell everybody, the words just flying out of my mouth without me even thinking them.

  And we all swallow the tiny drops of each other’s blood. Like Holy Communion, but it’s our blood, not Jesus Christ’s.

  When I have babies, they’ll have Caro and Teensy’s and Necie’s blood! That will make us all related. And when I get old and die, as long as the heart of one Ya-Ya is still pumping blood, I’ll still be alive! Our blood is all mixed into one.

  Then Necie says, real soft, “Can I do my closing Divine Walnut Ceremony?”

  I had forgotten all about the surprise Necie said she had for the ending.

  We follow her to the edge of the
bayou, and out of her bag she pulls four walnut halves and hands one to each of us. Then she gives us candle stubs and has us light them.

  “Now, drip a little bitty wax inside the shell,” she tells us, “and stick your candle stub in there.”

  We are all surprised at Necie coming up with this. Every time I think I know my friends, they surprise me. They are full of secrets I will never know.

  You can hear the scratch of the kitchen match against the box and the little poof sound it makes when it ignites. We each light our candles and watch Necie. She bends down and gently lowers her walnut shell with its lit candle until it rests on top of the water. She gives the shell a tiny little push, and we all watch it float a little ways onto the dark water of the bayou.

  Then we each do the same thing, until there are four walnut halves bearing tiny lights out on the water that look like little fairy boats. The beauty of it makes me want to cry. We are holding hands, and we are high and mighty Ya-Yas, descendants of royal blood, which we will pass on down through many generations.

  Back at my house, the white statue of the Cuban Virgin is still sitting on the porch. The porch light is shining down on her, and June bugs flicker around the bulb, making little crackling sounds. The four of us stop dead in our tracks. We kneel down in front of Mary, and Teensy hands us items from her bag. Caro, Teensy, and I take the very same brand of Dark Beauty Contouring Makeup that Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer use, and begin to smear it on the face, hands, and feet of the turpentined Holy Lady. The makeup feels waxy and it smells like Genevieve’s dressing room. Under my fingers I can feel the smooth wood of the Virgin.

  After we color her skin brown again, we dip into the rouge pots and color her cheeks. We apply blue eye shadow to her eyelids and to the folds of her gown, and then line her lips with lipstick that reads “Harem Red” on the bottom of the tube. After that, we remove her jewels from our royal selves and put them back on the Virgin.

  When we’re done, we stand back in silence to admire our handiwork. Necie, who has still not touched the Virgin, steps forward and kneels at the foot of the statue. At first we thought she was going to pray. But she reaches over and takes the tube of lipstick away from Teensy, and at the last minute dots little flecks of red on the Virgin’s toes where they show under her gown. She paints the Blessed Virgin’s toenails red, something even the Cubans hadn’t thought of!

  I lean over and give Necie a kiss on the cheek. Caro kisses her other cheek. Then Teensy gives our Necie a big fat smack right on the lips.

  Back in bed, I can feel Caro’s body next to mine. I hear her breathing and feel her heart beating. I smell her Caro smell that’s like rice cooking and fresh-cut hay.

  Moonlight shines down on my friends and me. The smell of sweet olive hangs in the air like someone is breathing it out of her mouth. I look at my three friends sleeping. They still have traces of makeup on their faces, even though we tried our best to wipe it off with the sheets so Mother wouldn’t see it. The Ya-Yas are my real family. I am Queen Dancing Creek, a mighty warrior. I am of the great and royal tribe of Ya-Yas, and no white man will ever conquer me. The Moon Lady is my mother.

  The next morning we strip the beds before Mother even comes out on the porch to wake us. We have been up since sunrise, when the colors of the day came alive and we threw back our mosquito nets. Our first morning as full-fledged Ya-Yas.

  “Girls,” Mother is saying, “yall didn’t have to remove the linens. There’s no need for you to wash those sheets. Give me that bundle. I can’t have your mothers think I make yall work like laundresses when you spend the night with Vivi.”

  We’re trying to hide our sheets from her because they’re covered in makeup.

  “Mrs. Abbott,” Necie says, all smiles. “Please let me take them home and wash them. I am doing it as a special penance.”

  What a smooth talker that Necie can be.

  “Why, Denise, that is wonderful,” Mother says. “I only wish Viviane would follow your example more. You are making the Blessed Virgin very happy this morning.”

  Necie smiles at Mother and blinks her eyes like a true daughter of Mary, a credit to our tribe.

  “Well, come on in for some breakfast,” Mother says. “I’ve got fresh Ruston peaches that Mr. Barnage brought for us.”

  We follow Mother around the porch. “Just a minute, girls, I want to see if there are any new blossoms on the gardenia.”

  And Mother rounds the porch to where the statue is.

  “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” We’re right on her heels. Mother covers her mouth with one hand and makes the Sign of the Cross with the other. Then her body starts shaking inside her housedress.

  “Who could have done this?” she calls out. “Who in the world?!”

  Teensy steps right up, looks straight into my mother’s eyes, and says, “Mrs. Abbott, this could be a miracle.”

  “A miracle,” Mother whispers, like the statue has wept or bled from her palms.

  Mother freezes like a statue herself for a moment, then she begins plucking off honeysuckle blossoms, Rose of Montana flowers, sweet olive branches—any bloom she can get her hands on—and showering them upon the Cuban Virgin. She runs out into the side yard and snaps off whole big magnolia branches, she snaps off the heads of tuberoses and hibiscus flowers, and gathers them into her apron. I have never seen her move like this, like she is possessed. When she flies back onto the porch, she drops the blossoms at the statue’s painted feet, then reaches up to shake the Rose of Montana vine so that its flowers fall from the porch ceiling onto the statue’s head. Never has our porch been so filled with my mother’s blossoms. She has turned our front porch into an altar to the gorgeous colored Virgin.

  “Holy Mother of Christ!” she murmurs. “Kneel, girls! Kneel and pray.”

  So me and Caro and Teensy and Necie all fall to our knees with my mother, who has pulled her rosary out of her apron pocket. She is praying:

  Hail, bright Star of all the oceans,

  Hail, Mother of the Flowers,

  Shower us with the sweet fragrance

  Of your love and compassion,

  You who carried in your womb

  Him who heaven could not contain!

  My girlfriends and I kneel beside my mother. We have been saved by grace from the devil alligators, from the raging storm. We alone of all have been spared. The High and Mighty Almost Lost But Miraculously Found Tribe of Ya-Yas is just wrapped up in miracles.


  It was drizzling the next day when Sidda and Hueylene set out for the Quinault post office. Not raining, not showering, not sprinkling. Drizzling. If Sidda could have thought of a word for precipitation that was more passive-aggressive than “drizzle,” she would have used it. For the first time she began to understand what May Sorenson meant when she said the Northwest could mildew a person’s soul.

  She used the pay phone outside the post office to check in with her agent. He reassured Sidda that she was not flushing her career down the toilet by taking this time away, and that the world had not ended in the last week.

  Waiting for her in the general-delivery basket was a card from Connor made from a recycled watercolor sketch of one of his set designs. On the back he’d written:

  Dear Sidda,

  The bed is too big now that you’re away. I can’t sleep when I have more than the 1/16 of the mattress you leave me to sprawl on. Finished the designs for the second act, and the Seattle team is good. There are about a million trumpet lilies coming up in our temporary backyard here. Did you find the box I put in the car? Give Governor Hueylene a belly rub for me.

  I love you.


  Back at the cabin Sidda dried Hueylene’s long ears, which resembled curly flaps. She made herself a cup of tea, and changed into dry, warm socks. Sorting through the CDs she’d brought, she once again chose Rickie Lee Jones singing the old standards from Vivi’s era. She walked to the windows and looked out at the lake, humming along with “Spring Can Really Hang You U
p the Most.”

  Picking up a postcard with a picture of a gigantic geoduck, Sidda drew a set of wings on the giant clam, so that the unseemly Northwest shellfish resembled a penis about to take flight. On the back, she wrote to Connor:


  Don’t exaggerate. I always allow you at least one-fourth of any bed we’ve ever slept in. I miss you too. Yes, Mama’s box is in hand. Well, not in hand—let’s just say it’s here. And there. And everywhere. More on that later. I love you.


  After she stamped Connor’s card, she reached for the scrapbook. She puzzled at four narrow strips of leather that had been tied together with a piece of twine. A 1941 penny was slipped into a slot on each band of leather. Leaning her head back and staring at the ceiling, Sidda let out a muffled little laugh. Four penny-loafer cutouts! She could picture her mother and the three other Ya-Yas wearing out their loafers, then ritualistically carving the penny slots out of them. Was this a fad that was popular with all the kids back then, or something peculiar to the Ya-Yas?

  On the same page was a photo of the four girlfriends, taken on the side porch of the Abbott home on Compton Street, from the same era as the penny loafers. After glancing at the photo for a moment, Sidda put the album down and went into the kitchen. She checked all the drawers before returning to the big room. There, in the second drawer of an old pie chest that held playing cards, a Monopoly game, and a collection of moon snails, she found what she was looking for.

  Returning to the scrapbook, Sidda blew on the magnifying glass, then wiped it clean with her sweatshirt, and began to examine the photograph. She’d looked at it before, but she wanted to really study it. In the photograph, a Rose of Montana vine wound up and across a porch railing so thick with blossoms that the light must have glowed pink. On an oversized rattan sofa with wide, curved arms and chintz-covered cushions lay Vivi, Necie, Caro, and Teensy, two by two, head to foot, with their legs in such a tangle that Sidda could not tell whose painted toenails were whose. Vivi wore a striped halter top and shorts, and her hair was pulled up off her neck, with little blonde tendrils falling loose in the moist heat. A wrought-iron table was to the side of the sofa and held a black rotary fan. Four tall tea glasses sat on the floor with long spoons in them.


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