Incense clouds the sunroom entry to Sharon Caulder's Oakland abode, where a squatting wicker monkey stands guard, a tabletop perched on its head. In the small room beyond, a man sits on a straight-backed chair, hands on his knees, eyes closed. He's flanked on one side by an imposing Japanese rosewood altar bearing bottles, family photos, small statues, stones, flowers, and lit candles. The granite counter of a wet bar behind him is crowded with plastic packets of herbs and stones, and more bottles and burning candles. A brass cobra on the floor peeks out from a pile of what look like dried cobra eggs. Pretty much standard equipment, one might imagine, for someone who rids people of their demons.
Daniel is undergoing the final stages of exorcism. In prior sessions, Caulder has driven out the spirit that possessed him since birth, causing a distorted sense of himself and an inability to maintain relationships with women. But there's yet work to be done. Daniel came to Caulder in January with a ringing in his left ear; a common symptom, the exorcist notes, of an unwanted being on board. "This was a helpful spirit, sort of an invisible playmate," she says. "It was probably very helpful to him in early childhood. But they begin to live your life. You should live your own life."
Daniel, in fact, has a life. With his short, silver-shot hair, goatee, and wire-rim glasses, he looks exactly like the sales manager and former software executive he is. What he doesn't look like is someone who would believe in this stuff; at best, he seems like a guy who might let his wife drag him to couples counseling -- as long as it wasn't game night.
For that matter, the session begins like a visit to a therapist. Daniel sits in a chair in the center of the rug, while Caulder perches on a carved wooden chair about three feet away. Unlike Daniel, she looks the part. Caulder is sixty years old but appears forty, petite and curvy with wavy highlighted dark hair, a diamond nose piercing, and a ruby stud below her lower lip. A graphic black snake tattoo winds around her right arm. She favors bold jewelry like a rhinestone tarantula worn on a ribbon around her neck. Today, she's dressed in a loose white silk shift with a nylon slip underneath. Her feet are bare, her fingernails, toenails, and lips painted the same frosty mauve. "So, how's it going?" she asks Daniel in that supportive but neutral tone favored by regular psychologists.
Work's been crazy, he says. His usual ten-hour days are now twelve hours. The company is doing better although he's short a couple of employees, which means more work for him. But his relationship has been good.
It's only when the conversation turns to Daniel's exorcised spirit that things stray from the ordinary. "You're looking shiny," Sharon says. "This is the first time I've seen you shiny." She pulls out a small whiteboard and draws a quick outline of a person's head and shoulders. Another swipe of the marker takes a chunk out of the left side of the head, like a bite from an apple. This, Caulder explains, is where the spirit entered and nestled. And although the stowaway is gone now, Daniel still has a hole in his energy shield; if it isn't mended, other spirits might get in. "Every cell in your body has the footprint of your soul," she says. When a spirit enters you, it takes up space in the body and changes the shape of that footprint to its own. After it's exorcised, she notes, the original soul footprints have to be re-created so that the person's own soul can fully inhabit its body. Today, she'll help Daniel reshape the footprints and "hulk up" his own spirit.
As they chat, Caulder rises and begins moving around her client, then suddenly begins to motion with her hands. It's as if Daniel were encased in a foot of thick, malleable, invisible clay. She picks and grabs at the stuff, flicking her fingers to the side, casting off bits of spiritual schmutz. She steps back to survey her work, then moves back in, patting and picking some more. This goes on for about twenty minutes. Finally, she squats in front of him. "You're in really good shape," she says in a tone that suggests she's trying to imprint him with a posthypnotic suggestion.
After Daniel leaves, Caulder prepares an elixir at the wet bar in readiness for Magi, her next client, who grew up in a satanic church in Los Angeles, and as a child experienced what she calls satanic blood-sex rituals. A shamanic healer herself, Magi has asked Caulder to perform a traditional healing ritual.
"I can set a goal and get to that goal through any number of ways," Caulder says, dripping essential oils into a fancy perfume bottle. "In traditions like voodoo or any shamanic tradition, they usually heal by bringing in divinities, sacred spirits to do the work." She adds flakes of gold leaf. "Because this lady is looking for the energy of ritual, I can make the energy of ritual for her." Caulder then tries to force a few red stones into the narrow mouth of the bottle, but they won't fit. "Shit." She puts the packet of stones aside and adds some smaller, rosy stones to the mixture. "But let me be clear," she continues. "I will do the work, I will cleanse her psyche or soul myself."
Magi has the vibe of a grade-school teacher, friendly and blonde and dressed in jeans, a turtleneck sweater, and big dangly earrings. She takes a seat, and Caulder explains that she'll be invoking the spirits of Nâete, the voodoo deity of the sea, and Kali, the Hindu primal mother goddess. Magi nods and smiles as if Caulder were mentioning mutual friends.
The healer creates an ad hoc altar on the floor next to her client. She lines up a colored statue of a woman with a snake -- voodoo goddess Mami Wata -- a shallow ceramic bowl, and a pint of Seagram's gin. Then she kneels on the floor in front of Magi and prays. Twice she swigs gin from the bottle, then spits it on the statue. She then takes a gourd from the altar and begins moving around the seated woman, shaking it as Magi sits erect, her eyes closed. Next comes a plain white egg, which Caulder passes around Magi's body, front and back, holding it near her heart, her stomach, her groin. She darts to the door, opens it, and cracks the egg against the door frame, spilling its contents on the wooden deck then dumping the dripping shells into a potted bamboo.
Caulder then picks up a small axe, its wooden handle and brass blade incised with decorations. She makes chopping motions behind her client's back as though cutting thick vines that tie her to something unseen. Laying down the axe, she rubs a small cup on the crown of Magi's head. The women murmur to each other, indistinguishable words. "Kali," Caulder says. Magi hums in agreement, "Mmm hmmm, mmm hmmm, mmm hmmm." Caulder completes the ceremony by piling rose petals on Magi's head and letting them spill off her and onto the floor.
Magi opens her eyes, contented. "Ooh, I'm zippy," she says. She then quizzes Caulder, one pro to another: "What's your take on what happened when I was going to that place and hesitated?"
"I'm monitoring you all the time," Caulder says, "so when I saw your hesitation, I stopped the process and said Kali's name. I did what I needed to do so that when you went there, you could get the benefit with the least amount of damage."
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