Day of the Dead, the fiction story – continued from part 1
I was somewhere dark, cold, wet. On the ground. The ground was what was cold. It was damp and hard. And a terrible odor came into my nostrils. Vomit. Probably my own. My head hurt, but more than just a hangover, the front of it was throbbing. As if I’d fallen. However I ended up on this corner of concrete, it wasn’t kindly.
I felt all my fingertips and toes. My arms and legs were still here. I tried to move, and made several failed attempts at standing up again. When I finally did get up, it was with the aid of the stairs to a nearby house. So I was on the street. Somewhere on a street-where?-New Orleans. Okay.
I stood up and had to sit down immediately. My stomach wretched again and I collapsed on the stairs. There was still something in my system that made my knees knock and my legs move like jelly. What the hell.
I wasn’t sure what time it was. Early. The sky was past its peak of darkness, and getting lighter. If that was the case, then I was only out for a couple hours, now, though what had happened in those hours was a painful blur … I left the club, with the couple, stumbling and groping and touching. We went — somewhere — somewhere close. Somewhere with a bed, and — God, her body, so furious in its feminity, as if she was devouring me. I’d closed my eyes, not knowing if it were her or him touching me, caressing me, kissing me, until the moustache and the taste of cigarettes hit my lips.
Stop. Don’t think about that. You made out you were going to the bathroom, and you made it down the stairs. And you made it this far. Okay. So you were going home?
I was going home. Not that the hostel was really home, or even that I knew how to get back there, but that was the aim of the drunken expedition. The air was still warm, but shivers came without warning and nearly knocked me to the ground.
I staggered a few blocks, stopping frequently to lean against light-poles or the sides of buildings.
The party was still going on, but had subdued in tempo. Lots of people were stumbling home, betraying their presence by kicking beer bottles that skipped across the concrete sidewalks or by howling unintelligible rants at the echoing corridors of the narrow streets. A discordant pitch of song and cheering a block to my right suggested I was near Bourbon St again. But I didn’t have much else of any idea where I was. On a distant corner I saw a white lit sign reading A&P Grocery. I dragged myself in that direction.
The place was still open, and I resolved to step inside and ask for directions. I leaned against the heavy glass door and it creaked open. The clerk, a firm black woman with tall piled curls, merely shook her head at the sight of me.
"Nuh ‘un," she said, and pointed to the door.
"I’m looking for, for…" my words were a garbled half-slur, "Fer B’ome."
I realized, vaguely, how idiotic the request seemed. She continued to point towards the door and I saw a black security guard approaching from the rear of the store. I obeyed her orders and slumped against the wall of the building as the door creaked closed behind me.
Part of me cracked. I was insignificant, my venture was fruitless. Even if she were here, I’d never track her down. I’d betrayed her, anyways. What was there left for me?
"You got a quarter, stranger?" came an unexpected voice to my left. I sprang back with a start. I had slumped down not five feet from where a black sat cross-legged, a guitar propped between his legs, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. Even through my bleary eyes I could see the cracked lens of his thick eyeglasses and an expression poised between doubt and laughter.
"Hey Paps," I stammered, astonished at the sound of my own voice, frail as a wet kitten.
"Awww it’s the youngblood, ain’t it? What’s weighin’ on ya?" he said.
"I… I…" but I let the words trail of. There were too many things to say.
"You got the blues," he said.
"Lemme tell you somethin’, kid — there’s only one thing to do about the blues. You gotta play ’em out."
He threw the cigarette butt to the street and picked up the guitar.
"Lemme show you some licks."
As he began to play, I watched his fingers dance across the strings and his face lit up as if possessed. I watched intently — there was nothing complicated in what he played — but he played it with an absolute perfect simplicity, and his voice moaned the words so that they reverberated down the indigo city street.
Devil got my baby, no she can’t be found
Devil got my baby, no she can’t be found
Won’t you tell me if you see my baby, anywhere in this town
It was the song from my dream. I sat, transfixed, waiting for the ending that wouldn’t come to me in the dream. But he stopped at the same place I did.
"An’ that’s all I know," he said.
"But—what? No, you must, I mean, you can’t…"
I really couldn’t believe it. I pulled myself to my feet.
"Aw kid, ol’ Rob Johnson been in the dirt some time now. This all the song that’s left. People who hear it just keep passin’ it along."
His words were hardly comforting . It was like another death — one more disappointment in a long list of troubling sorrows.
"I’ve had enough for the night," I said.
"Com’n now, stick around and I’ll play ya somethin’ different, okay?"
Dawn was nearly upon us now; the sky had lifted from sheer black to navy. The blanket of night heat was still heavy, and I never felt grimier or more foul.
"Not tonight," I said.
"Well do what you gotta do, I guess," he said. "Anyhoo, you know where to find ol’ Paps. "
"I do ," I said, not sure that I did. But it was taking all of the concentration I had to march down the street. I didn’t make it but another two blocks before I collapsed against a newspaper stand, retching a dry heave into the street. I sunk to my knees, shoving my faced into a gouged Plexiglass screen still holding a copy of yesterday’s paper: Drive-by Shooting Kills Man, Wounds Child.
I snapped out of my personal hell by the sound of shouting across the street. I lifted my weary head to see a white and black checkered cab pulled up outside of a hotel, an attractive but disheveled couple getting out with gusto. As they staggered inside I rushed towards the cab, nearly cracking into the side of the window. The driver looked at me skeptically, but at last nodded and I struggled my way in.
"Christ," he said, "Least I got plenty of kids like you to keep me in business."
I woke with a horrible start some hours later, adrenaline surging through my sweat-soaked body. I had only a fragment of a dream — me, as Robert Johnson, making a deal with the devil, except instead of at the crossroads, it was hell, and I was surrounded by fire and cackling and brimstone and a bloody cockroach-crawling skull that was the devil’s face. As I settled down, my eyes adjusted to the heat and stink that wasn’t hell, just a ferociously hot room in a run-down hostel. Sun beamed in through holes in the curtains, illuminating the filthy floor with all its shirts, bras, and wet towels.
My stomach was hollow and my head felt stuffed with broken glass. I clumsily sorted through my pack looking for Advil, and while I found the rattling bottle of medicine quickly, I didn’t find the pair of socks with close to three-hundred dollars in it. The horrible nightmare of last night returned to me in force. I glanced down at the floor of the room again and saw the empty bunk when Cassie had lain naked and sweaty the night before.
I pushed the loss out of my mind and swallowed four Advil without water. My throat was raw and parched, and the urge to get a drink got me moving more than the fetid smell of my own vomit mixed with the gutter. I made my way off the bed and headed towards the shower.
I was disgusted with myself. I’d come here to find her, and the first thing I did was cheat on her. There was no water hot enough or soap harsh enough to scrub off the grime. I gave up at some point and sobbed. God, it wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I dressed in a pair of jean shorts and a t-shirt and took my guitar and pack downstairs. I wasn’t the only late riser today. The man with dreadlocks sat at the kitchen table while a woman in a slip prepared eggs and bacon. The scent caused my stomach to turn over, and I realized I hadn’t eaten since early yesterday.
"Good morning!" the man said with irritating enthusiasm. All of the eeriness of the previous night was wiped from his face, replaced with a bubbly cheeriness. "Rough one, eh?"
"Yeah," I said, walking to the kitchen table. I slumped down next to him.
"You want some coffee?"
"Jean!" he yelled.
"Oui, crème et sucre?" she asked.
I shook my head.
She came a few moments later with a white mug filled to the brim with aromatic coffee. I sipped it slowly, savoring the bitterness, inhaling the wisps of steam as they rose from the cup.
"This is good," I said.
"Life is too short for bad coffee," he said. "Now tell me, how was your first night? You made it to Bourbon St I imagine?"
"It wasn’t really my thing."
"No!" he laughed, "Well I don’t hear that very often. But I don’t blame you. I’d never be caught there myself."
"Of course not. If I go downtown at all, it’s for lower Decatur or Frenchmen St. That’s where the real scene is."
"Decatur?" I asked.
"It’s the first street parallel to the river. Any further and you’re in the Mississippi, so it’s really hard to miss. Follow it downriver and you’ll come to the corner of Esplanade, further onward to Frenchmen, but right there on Esplanade, actually, there’s an amazing club — El Matador it’s called — "
He looked at me expectantly.
"I think I ended up somewhere around there last night."
"Well! Didn’t take you long, did it? That’s the only neck worth going to downtown. There a few more clubs you might be interested in…"
"I’m not really interested in clubs."
He raised his eyebrow.
"I’m looking for someone."
"Oh Jesus," the man said, "Good luck."
"Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. What I mean is, well, lots of people come to New Orleans, and a lot go missing. I must say, you don’t often come across someone who’s after someone."
"What do you mean missing?"
"Missing," he said, "They get sucked up in the city. This place does things to people. Kids like you come from all over the country, have a good time, and are swept away by the undercurrent. Be careful where you go looking."
"Actually," I said, "One of the places I was looking is around here."
"Oh?" the man asked, rapidly losing interest.
The woman approached with a plate of fried eggs and bacon which he waved aside. But, upon catching my eyes on it, he motioned for her to set down the plate in front of me. I devoured it. After I’d finished I contemplated licking up the grease. The man casually took out a pack of Camels and lit one up. He offered me one, and though I’d smoked only a handful in my life, and always while drunk, I took it, and started smoking through trembling fingers.
"My girlfriend and I had this sort of breakup," I said, ready to get this off my chest even to the weirdest of audiences. "She took off down here to try and find herself, and she stayed right here in this hostel. She still wrote me practically every week, and even sent a postcard with a picture of this place on it. But that was over a month ago. I haven’t heard from her since."
The man shrugged. "She moved on. Get over it."
"No!" I yelled with more gusto than I intended. "I mean, we had something special. There was no reason for her to just vanish. Something must have happened to her."
"Yeah? Well, do you expect me to do something about it?"
"I thought maybe you could look at the guest logs, see if you could confirm that she’d been here, and if she’d left…"
"No way," he said, "I’m not getting involved. It’s against the law, for one, and in the chance she turns up trying to hide from you after all I’ll lose my license. Besides, like I said, she’s probably five states away by now. It happens."
"Can’t you at least tell me if she sounds familiar?"
"I’ll try. But seeing as how I go through thirty or forty people about your age a day…"
"She was thin, not too tall, brown hair–plain. Good looking, but in a plain, true, honest way, not some phony supermodel look-alike; she had blue eyes, and the sweetest smile. She would’ve been soft-spoken. Alone. When she laughed if was if the sun and the grass and the sky laughed with her, and, and…"
"Kid, I can’t help you."
"I can’t," he said, and his face solidified to the texture of a statue. The woman looked at us with a half-smile of either interest or a hidden secret.
"Well fuck you," I said, "I know you know something!"
I slammed the coffee cup down and stood, grabbing my gear.
"The hell with it. This city can’t be that big. Not if I set my goddamn mind to it…"
"Good luck with that," he said.
I stormed out of the room without another word, conscious of the absurdity of my reckless claim, but right then, come hell, fire, and brimstone, I was determined to find her. If it took looking under every crevice, crack, and gutter in the whole wretched city. I would have no rest until I had her in my arms again.
I stalked the French Quarter that day, down every narrow street, past every street-band escapade, ignoring the packed streets of tourists and beggars, peeking my head into corner shops, questioning passersby and shopkeepers. I showed the only picture I had of her, the one I took when we drove out to Isle Au Haut, with the scrabbly trees and fog over the cool Atlantic and her, smiling, up close. No one had anything insightful to tell me.
"No, she doesn’t look familiar…" "Maybe, hm, but I don’t know where I’d know her from…" "Can’t help you, guy…" all the same phrases from at least a hundred strangers, locals and tourists alike. As dusk rolled around again, I found a corner liquor store and bought myself a pint of bourbon and headed toward the Mississippi River.
I found a place to sit on the rocks and stared out at the sunset. The river churned the colors of the sky—dark muddied amber, violet, gold, and brown. Riverboats still trudged up and down the steady river, and staring out at the mighty waters, I wept.
Somewhere in my all-encompassing sorrow, maybe half of the pint deep, I heard the twang of a blues guitar downriver. I hadn’t taken my guitar out of my case all day, just lugged it around like dead weight, but the sudden rise of music rekindled something inside me. I felt myself drawn to the guitar as to a Siren.
I followed the brick walkway along to a statue of a lady of Liberty blindfolded, a family standing expectantly beside her. Beneath it sat Paps, grinning an alchol-warmed grin, tuning his guitar.
"Hmm them stumblin’ steps must be a newcomer," he said, "That you, youngblood?"
"Hi," I said.
"Siddown, siddown," he said. I did. There were concrete steps beneath the statue. This perch afforded a vast view over the dusk-colored river as it moved its steady course.
"I was just thinkin’ about that tune I was playing you early this mornin’. I kinda think ol’ Rob would want someone to end it someday. You wanna learn how to play it?"
"I already know how. I just don’t know how it ends."
"You and me both. You got your strings with you?"
"Yeah," I said.
"Then pull ’em out and we’ll see where we can get ourselves."
I laid down my guitar case and popped it open, reverently removing the mahogany and rosewood guitar with the Orpheus inscription.
I tuned up quickly, closing my eyes and letting the music flow through my fingers. The bluesman beside me followed behind, taking my lead, and the music happened. The sorrow, the dread, and the doubt all began to channel out through my fingertips as I played the guitar. I never sang, but his voice crooned out and the tune rolled out across the darkening waters of the eternal Mississippi.
Devil got my baby, no she can’t be found
Devil got my baby, no she can’t be found
Won’t you tell me if you see my baby, anywhere in this town
Lookin’ for my baby, lookin’ all around
Lookin’ for my baby, lookin’ all around
I’ll kill the devil to get my baby, so we can go back to town
Lost in the trance of his words mingling with the steady guitar rhythm, I played out something. It was an ending. Maybe not the ending, but somehow something seemed right. Night was fully set in when I set the guitar down.
"Not so bad, kid, not so bad," Paps laughed in his bear-sized laugh.
"Let’s see if they threw us any dough."
I wasn’t sure what he meant until he padded around in the guitar cases. Though I was three-hundred bucks poorer, money was still the last thing from my mind.
"Well oh lawd!" he cried. "You struck it rich, kid!"
I looked at him skeptically, as he held a bill taut in his fingers.
"Only a hundred dollar bill is clean as this ‘un."
"A hundred?" I said, then looking closer, "Wow, you’re right."
"A big ol’ Ben Franklin. That take away yer blues?"
I thought about it, then said, "It’s not money’s got me down."
"Never found your woman, huh?"
"I’m here cuz’ a woman, too," he said, "She done run me outta Missippi, an’ I been sleepin’ round here playin’ the guitar, waitin’ to catch another train. What’d your ol’ lady do to ya?"
"It’s not like that. She’s lost. I’ve been looking for her."
"Lost? Aw, shit kid, whereabouts?"
"Somewhere in this city," I shrugged, "I suppose if I had a better idea I’d have found her already."
"Well if I read ya right, you ain’t interested in takin’ up matters with the law, as if they’d be able to help ya. Ya try any of the left-handed methods?"
"You know, the traditional ways."
"I, ah, don’t really know what you mean."
"Alright, son, here’s the deal. You wanna turn this lady love of yours up, any which way you can?"
"Of course I do!" I said.
"You follow me then, and pick up that hundred dollar bill. You’re gonna need it to please the lwa."
"Jes’ have a little faith, you’re gonna meet the real thing, the bona fide John, Doctor of Spiritual and Personal Matters. You know what night is tonight? Naw, course you don’t." He paused. "Reckon’ you can help ol’ Paps to a taxi?"
"Yes!" I cried, excitement spraying my mouth as if from a garden hose. I put my guitar away and slung it on my back before helping Paps to his feet.
"Let’s head downriver, then," he said, "We goin’ to the lower nint’."
I grew skeptical of our destination as we crossed Elysian Fields and left all signs of life attached to the French Quarter. The neighborhood we entered was dark, tattered, eerie. The taxi bucked as we drove over the cracked roads, in as poor shape as they might have been in a warzone. Houses sank under the weight of neglect. A mighty oak tree conquered one three way corner. Beyond it was a church, the doors boarded up, with a headless statue of the Virgin Mary.
At length we turned down a street and idled in front of a shuttered house, white like all the others, with peeling paint, and no outward identifying signs but a symbol of an eye carved into the wood above the doorway. I helped Paps out of the taxi and paid the driver with some of the dwindling cash left in my pocket. Paps shuffled to the door, knocked three times, and waited.
"He jes’ a lil’ slow at times," he said.
At length, the door creaked open. A lean black man in a white robe stood at the door, a purple sash tied about his head. He and the blues man exchanged a strange handshake and a brief embrace.
"What brings you to the house of Elabeau?" the stranger asked.
"This young fella here is in need of some help. His woman has left him and gone missing."
A cloud flickered across the stranger’s eyes. "Brother, I am busy with the ceremony."
"I done brought him all the way down here, and you’re gonna turn us away?"
The man in white looked past the blues man to me for a brief moment.
"I cannot lend my attention, I did not say you will be turned away. You may stay for the ceremony."
Paps looked to me now.
"Whaddya say? You might get the chance to levy your request to a higher authority."
I suddenly felt very small, with the two powerful black men standing at the entrance to the house like the gateway to another world I had only barely earned the right to pass into. I said what seemed the best thing to say.
"I would be honored to attend."
"Come then," said the stranger, and I helped Paps up the stairs and into the house.
Contrary to the derelict appearance of the outside, the interior was marvelously arranged in a feast of color. An altar right of the doorway was laden with candles, statues, photographs, jewelry and feathers. A painting of a majestic black man wearing a black robe and carrying a gavel hung just past it, passing judgement or giving hope I could not tell. Plants hung from the ceiling and seemed to sprout from bookshelves. Herbs and flowers and sprawling vines, commingled with tall white candles that flickered an unearthly light into the space.
I thought I heard a distant lick of jazz, but the predominant sound was a low drumming from the far end of the house, where the stranger was leading us. The drumming reverberated through the space and into my chest, a heartbeat of a creature far larger than myself.
"My name is Houngan John Elabeau," the stranger said as we past from the entryway to the kitchen, and then to steps leading out the backside of his house, where we stopped. "I am pleased to welcome you to my house, the Court of Three Stars. I assume you have never been to a ceremony?"
I shook my head.
"Then be in reverence. This is a sacred event, and we will not tolerate indifference. Hold respect for the spirits. Dance, if the spirit moves you. The spirits come when invited. If you have an offering for the spirits, they may repay you kindly with their presence."
He was still skeptical, but nodded. "Come, it is time."
Elabeau strode down the steps confidently but I took a moment helping Paps, my attention to the task distracted by the incredible show in front of me. Dozens of people were packed into a tiny courtyard behind the house, bordered on all sides by other derelict houses. But unlike the peeling white of the sides facing the street, the inside walls of each house were painted in fantastic murals, depicting black men on horses, drums, flames and snakes, many, many snakes.
The crowd circled a small open space around a gilded bier, a semi-circle of drummers at its far edge. The crowd parted to allow Elabeau to enter the circle. Paps nearly fell as he hit the final step and I snapped out of my gawking quickly enough to grab him.
"Christ, boy," he said, before shuffling forward on his own, as if now confident of the ground he walked on. I looked around quickly, feeling awkward under the weight of my pack and guitar, and stashed both beneath the back steps of the house. I then hurried over to where Paps bumbled blindly towards the circle.
"Help me get this thing on," he said, pulling a crushed purple bandana from somewhere in his vest. I was no good at knots but managed to it to get it on his head without too much complaint. He stepped forward, feeling his way in space until he touched the crowd. A man took a quick glance back in surprise, then smiled when he saw Paps.
"Good evening, Gede," the man said.
Paps let out a small chuckle. "Not yet, friend, not yet."
I couldn’t see much, but the drums continued in a slow, steady beat. I kept rising to my tip-toes, eager to see what was happening at the center.
After some painfully long minutes of waiting, the drums stopped.
"I don’t see anything."
"Shush!" Paps warned.
I opened my mouth to reply but was stopped by Elabeau’s strong call: "Annoncé," he said.
The crowd repeated, "Annoncé."
He went on to speak a long prayer in a language I didn’t understand.
"That’s Creole," Paps said, "He’s sanctifying the space, and axin’ for the spirits to please visit us. Here comes the song."
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Legba nan baye-a
Se ou ki pote drapo
Se ou k ap pare soley pou Loa yo
After Elabeau sang the song, the crowd repeated it, though I struggled to follow along. The words were just too strange for me.
After this song, the drummers started again, this time with an upbeat and aggressive rhythm. Again, I crept up on my toes to see what was going on, and caught a glance of someone with a machete chasing Elabeau.
"Shit, he’s got a sword!" I said in surprise.
"Quiet now!" Paps warned again, "You ain’t never been outta the farm, have ya? That’s a lil’ dance for Legba. Sayin’ he will let us through the gate to talk to some spirits tonight."
The drum rhythm stopped, and a brief silence followed.
"Now you gotta turn ’round like this."
Following another proclamation of "Annoncé" the crowd spun counterclockwise a full turn. I missed the mark and hurried after a step late.
"Now help me down. You gotta get ta one knee, kiss the ground," Paps said, leaning into me as I awkwardly helped him to the earth. Sure enough, everyone kissed the ground, and after all of the weird things I’d kissed this week, I figured I might as well do the same.
My knees started to ache as Elabeau murmured another strange prayer while we were all kneeling, then everyone stood abruptly and another dance began with the drums. It was an effort to get Paps to his feet again.
I started to have my doubts about the ceremony as the pattern of prayer, dance, and spinning around in circles continued. This was more like church than magic.
Then the mood of the ceremony changed again, dramatically. A wild, enthusiasic roar rang through the crowd and the drums careened into a feverish pitch. Sparklers lit up from the front of the crowd, and people started springing into motion.
"What’s happening now?" I asked, looking back for Paps, but he was gone. Alarm shot through my body as I looked through the predominantly black crowd, though I caught my eye on his purple headband a few bodies ahead. My heart settled down as the drum rhythm became more regular, and the cheers and cackle from the crowd quieted. The crowd seemed to be moving in a direction now, and lest I stay at the edge forever and miss my chance to enter the mystery, I pushed forward with them.
By the time I reached the entrance to the circle, the rhythm of the drums was already tuning into the rhythm of my heart, or maybe it was vice-versa. Standing between me and the last remaining members of the crowd, and a growing circle of dancers around the gilded bier, was Hougan Elabeau, who glowed as if lit afire. He was strong before, certainly, but now he was radiant, charged with a terrifying and tangible power.
Ignoring the fear that sank through my bones, I stepped forward to him.
The fear melted away, somewhat, as he shook a rattle around my body in time with the drums. I had maybe some sort of muscle memory as to the reason of this ritual, that this rattle was purifying me and empowering me, enabling me to enter the sacred space. After what I’d been through, I didn’t consider myself sacred. But Elabeau let me in all the same.
"If you have a sacrifice, lay it down on the altar," he whispered as he pressed my temples with cool fingertips, "Then you may welcome the spirits, and dance."
The drums’ rhythms seemed amplified a hundredfold within the circle. The dancers circled the altar, scattering a maze of symbols that had been drawn beneath, moving in an unhurried pace counterclockwise around the bier.
I pushed through the circle and knelt at the bier, joining a handful of others who were laying their sacrifices. There were no dead chickens and no gutted snakes, instead a wealth of rum, cigars, chilies, coins, photographs, glasses, and other small trinkets. I momentarily hesitated, unsure what to leave, until I produced the hundred-dollar bill Paps had found in my guitar case. I was not ready to let it go. I needed the money. I didn’t know where the next hundred would come from. But something seemed so right about parting with it, and maybe it was the intoxicating rhythm of the drums that got me to lay it down on the altar.
A moment later, I also produced the photo from my pocket, and took a last look at her smiling face and the vast stretch of the Atlantic ocean and laid that on top of the bill, whispering a small prayer.
"May I find you again," I whispered, "May we be together."
My eyes opened, all reality evaporating into the energy that surrounded me, and never had I been more aware of every inch of my body, toes to fingers. I stood and joined the dance circle.
I started with walking, but soon found myself dancing, falling in line as best I could with the practiced congregation. It was dancing unlike any I’d ever done before, and the moves and the rhythms came from somewhere outside and bigger than myself. I was not so much performing a dance, but visualizing the rhythm of the drums through the instrument of my body. It felt like we were belts on a motor of some musical engine, driving into some place other than here with the power of many bodies.
At some point, the circle stopped abruptly and my rhythm hiccupped. I looked around for the cause of the disturbance, and saw that someone had collapsed to the ground. Alarmed, I moved to do something but then saw the person spring up again, livelier than before. He cackled something in what must have been Creole, and the circle began to move again.
This happened to several others, and I looked desperately around me for Paps. Not seeing him, and not wanting to leave my place in the circle, I asked the person behind me, a younger man of maybe 30.
"It’s the possession," he said, "Keep dancing! It means the spirits are coming to us!"
Indeed, the people who had fallen and risen again acted as if possessed. They approached each other, babbled phrases in Creole and exchanged handshakes and hugs with the subtle gestures of a secret society. Of all of them, one had the most boisterous personality. He wore a black top hat with a plumed purple feather. He had a cigar in his mouth and a bottle of rum in his hand. He guffawed, laughed, and danced around the circle, taunting the others. As the face turned to me, I saw the signature glasses with one cracked lens and realized that Paps was under the spell.
I continued to dance, but the sight of Paps dressed and behaving extravagantly shattered my attention. He walked with extreme confidence and dexterity, weaving in and out of the crowd, stumbling as if drunk and about to collapse and then recovering with an exaggerated flourish. He clapped people on the backs and yelled at others across the courtyard like only someone with decent eyesight could. I broke from the dance circle to stare at him. He bounded towards me, cackling.
"Comment ça-va?" he asked.
I stared, confused.
"What’s going on here?"
He flung an arm around me and dragged me with him as he skipped across the circle. He thrust me towards the other spirits.
"Hm!" he yelled, "You have something to ask us, no?"
I gaped at the other two spirits — the man and woman from the El Matador, unless my eyes were playing tricks on me. While not dressed as extravagantly as Paps, there was something otherwordly about them each, a certain way they moved and looked which was no longer totally human. My tongue stuck in my mouth, and I felt at the center of some interrogation.
"I want my girl back! Where is she!" I cried.
"Hmf!" Paps said to the couple, "It sounds like we have someone looking for someone taken a little too early!"
The others laughed, a laugh sweet but with the point of a knife.
"She could not mean much to you, if you are only here looking for her," the man said.
The woman agreed. "If this was a true love, then you would honor her by living!"
With this, the couple began to grind against each other suggestively, and Paps rotated his hips as well. My face reddened over, and I shouted back: "Listen! Let me show you how much I care!"
I rushed back to the steps and grabbed my guitar, ripping it out if its case and running, the most violent I’d ever been with the instrument. I threw the strap over my neck and started strumming even as I jogged back to the three spirits, who were making erotic gestures to one of the drummers.
"Listen!" I cried again, but the three would not pay attention. So I began to play.
It was idiotic and bizarre, part of my mind told me, but the other part, the part invoked by this ceremony, the part washed belly-up by this strange city, told me it was right and necessary. So the notes trickled out, joining with the drums and the dancing and the shouts and the laughter. I had rarely sang in public before, hardly even to myself. But pushed as I was to this point, my voice rang out like a clarion call.
Devil got my baby, where can she be found?
Devil got my baby, where can she be found?
I’ll kill the devil to get my baby, so we can be as one.
The lyrics and song morphed into something else as soon as it was out of my mouth, and when the last notes trickled into the circle, the spirits paused, stared at me in wild delight, and all broke out into infuriating laughter.
"Fine," said Paps at last, "You can have her, but you must never look back."
"What’s that supposed to mean!" I cried, looking left and right for any sign of her.
"Tut tut!" he yelled, "We mean it!"
"But where is she!" I shouted again.
Paps shrugged, and the man and woman sprung off, her grabbing at his crotch as they did, and soon I was standing outside of the circle while the energy moved in a direction different from where I wanted it to go. Suddenly cold, I stormed from the ceremony, out of Elabeau’s house, and into the dark and mysterious streets.
In this neighborhood it really was dark, with only one or two streetlights visible at a time, scattered every couple hundred feet or more. I also had no idea where I was, though it didn’t matter. I wasn’t interested in returning to the French Quarter and its thinly-veiled sadness. Instead I roamed.
I lost track of the time and track of the blocks, all the soul-sickness flooded back into me, nearly knocking me to my knees and tightening my throat. I had yet to see her, yet to hear her voice, yet to find something that even made me think she had ever been here.
Lost in thought, I nearly walked straight into a concrete wall, a long perimeter that ran the length of a dead-end block. Like the rest of this strange neighborhood, the wall was painted white, though not recently. At the top of the wall were wrought-iron bars the shape of crosses. A cemetery.
I walked long the wall with a sense of wonder, finding a black iron gate which was ajar. It creaked as I entered, and gave no other protest.
Candles burned next to several graves, joined with fresh flowers, coins, and other offerings similar to those I had just seen at the ceremony. For someone used to earthen plots and white stones, this graveyard was utterly surreal. Rather than stones set into the ground, the cemetery was packed with crypts of varying sizes and shapes, some crumbling to rubble, some immaculately maintained. Some crypts had many names packed onto them, other had a single family’s.
I felt out of sync with time, suffering in my own sphere of existence, and the pain nearly dragged me to the ground. Fighting all of this, I continued to walk, nearly stumbling blindly again into a crypt with her family name on it. Feeling a sense of bitter irony, I sat down before it, opened my guitar case, and began to play.
I played the melody of earlier, rushing through the song to play the new ending. Something still struck me as wrong with it — maybe a note flat, maybe a note high… and I played the song over and over again, playing with the final chord, always starting from the beginning, trying to churn some sort of answer out of the strings.
I played, and played, and played, until eventually my fingers were enchanted or exhausted, and I ripped through the notes in a way that clicked like a skeleton key to the lock. With the furious melody out in the air, I lowered the guitar again, and a strange and powerful quiet overwhelmed the cemetery. There were no sirens, no far-off drunks, no gunshots, no hollering. It was simple quiet.
It was then that I felt her behind me, a warmth amidst the cold concrete mingled with the scent of rosewater perfume. The scent paralyzed me — I was probably delirious, no, definitely hallucinating, for sure, but I couldn’t shake the fact that she was there. I sat up stiffly, wondering what compromise I had reached with the universe, when the air crackled around me.
"What are you chasing after, Orpheus?" she asked me.
"Where are you?" I screamed out, looking left and right, but feeling pressure on my shoulder.
"Don’t turn around, you know that. What are you really looking for?"
"That’s not true, and you know it isn’t. I was never real to you."
"Of course you were, what’s that supposed to mean?"
"Who were you in love with — me or your fantasy?"
"It wasn’t a woman that inspired your songs, it’s what you imagined she was, or could be."
"What are you getting at? Why can’t I turn around?"
"You’re no more Orpheus than I’m Eurydice. But that didn’t keep you from coming to the underworld."
"Enough already!" I cried out, leaping from my place on the ground, spinning around to find the source of the mysterious voice.
But I found only dark blue marble, and the silence of this inner sanctum. Cold crept into my body, and I backed up rapidly, dragging my guitar away from the mausoleum. I hastily packed it and hurried back towards the gate. I took one more moment to look at the tomb sharing her family name before I ran from the cemetery as fast as I could.
Her voice echoed in my head and haunted me, overcoming all my sensibilities and shattering my thin grasp on reality. The cryptic message, whatever it meant, wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I fled as fast as my feet could take me, but found myself running back to the Court of Three Stars.
There was still sound coming from within, though the drums were silent. The door opened and three members of the congregation in their signature white stepped out. I rushed past them into the house, carrying with me a rapid heartbeat and sense of terror that jarred abruptly with the calm within.
The ceremony was over, and the crowd had refocused their efforts on chatting and eating a large feast spread through a cramped kitchen and onto picnic tables set up in the courtyard. There was ample rum, wine, and beer, and the evening seemed to have shifted from the ecstatic to a post-coital hum. I sought ferociously for Elabeau.
I headed out to the courtyard, where the bier was overflowing with riches even as its candles burned low. The drums sat silent, and the patterns in the sand were kicked, obscured, walked over. Elabeau was standing with Paps, who still wore the extravagant hat, his broken sunglasses askant on his face. They were talking in hushed and urgent whispers when I interrupted.
"Please," I gasped, "I need some answers."
"Relax, son!" Elabeau said as I collapsed into his arms. He held me as I dragged towards the ground, my body pushed to its limits, overwhelmed by the weight of the world. "Be at ease. What troubles you?"
I moved my mouth to speak but no answer would come, only a deep, low, penetrating moan. The moan turned to a cry that extinguished in tears that swept down my cheeks. Paps then spoke, still bearing the strange French accent.
"You have lost someone, oh, but you’ve lost more than just them, no? You worry you never had them to begin with."
I could only reply with brisk, choking sobs.
"You’ve been chasing a ghost, no? As if you’d ever see a ghost in the flesh? But, there’s something else about you, mm, you weren’t just looking for a girl, were you?"
I groaned, looking up at him through my streaked-wet eyes.
"You call yourself Orpheus, no? It’s not your real name, but it fits, it fits your journey, your cause. Maybe it’s time to let it go. Stop believing in the myth, see what life holds for you then."
"But, what then–?" I choked, but a sudden darkness fell upon the Paps’ face. He shrunk backwards, and the tophat fell to the ground, the glasses slipped beneath his nose. Elabeau took his other broad arm and swept it around him, and the blues man gurgled as his body convulsed, the aura of mystery around him fading.
I sensed we were again within the limitations of our own senses. The powers of serendipity were gone.
I looked to Elabeau with pleading eyes.
"You have been given an answer by a spirit, child, don’t ask me for more."
"But — "
"The meaning is for you to discern. Maybe it’ll take time. Now, the ceremony is over. Get yourself something to eat."
I silently nodded and rose to my feet again, feeling like something had been seared out of me. I had only a vague sense of what had happened, and maybe didn’t want to understand it more. Not yet. But at his words, I realized that I was quite hungry.
I piled different dishes onto a paper plate, rich gumbos and beans and rice and grilled chicken and sausage. I poured rum into a cup and coke on top of it, grabbed a fork and found a quiet spot in the courtyard to feast and think.
At some point I looked over to see Paps shuffling up to me, his awkward blind man’s steps returned, casting his voice broadly in my direction.
"So you find yourself some kinda answer?" he asked.
"I don’t know," I said, "Sure."
"That don’t sound too certain."
I looked at him, as if he could see me.
He nodded gravely, and reached out into air. I put my empty plate down and grabbed his hand, which squeezed mine.
"I hope it was what you needed."
I didn’t respond, but the silence spoke loudly enough.
"What you want and need are sometimes different, youngblood. How ’bout we goes back to town and plays some blues?"
"I’m tired," I said.
"Me too," he answered. "But that never kept me from no music. Let’s make the cats howl, the dogs shriek, and the po-lice think the damn devil’s got himself loose."
With that, we reached some sort of pact, and I stood up, collected my pack and guitar, and helped him out into the muggy night. It was several blocks before we could find a taxi to the French Quarter, but I enjoyed now the delight of the dark, the fanciful moonlight playing on eerie houses and ancient oaks.
We arrived, at last, at the wild and confusing French Quarter, where the night’s festivities were just erupting. We passed through it all on our way back to the Mississippi, where we played our ageless tunes as a ferry traveled across both river banks well toward dawn. At some point, I drifted away, and the beating of the drums and lullaby of the guitar continued into my dreams.
I woke with the warmth of light beating on my chest.
It was a new, spectacular morning. The sun had just crested the edge of the West Bank, casting the swirling eddies of the Mississippi in a blaze of gold, pink, and violet. I watched it for a good hour, finishing the pint of bourbon I had stashed in my pack, and then started walking the French Quarter streets.
I wasn’t looking, anymore, just walking, and the streets took on a character and splendor I hadn’t noticed until now. The early morning tempo was radically different than the wild nights, as garbage trucks roared up streets, hotel attendants hosed off the sidewalk, delivery men brought in stacks of fresh pastries to hotel lobbies.
I stopped in for coffee at a café looking over Jackson Square — what the Messenger had called the "place of worship." I bought three beignets and started my breakfast by dunking the first in the creamy coffee. I ate lazily and savored the images of the city — the weathered horses clacking their hoofs as they dragged a jingling carriage by, the hungover artists bringing out their wares to hang on the iron gates of the Square, street musicians setting up on the steps of the cathedral to appease the bedraggled tourists who started to appear in handfuls.
I realized, with odd serenity, that my search was over. Maybe I’d stumble across her yet, but what she was and what I had expected to find were two different things. And New Orleans had shown me a whole universe I had never imagined.
As I left the café, I nearly slammed into a disheveled man in tattered garments, who spun as I stepped into him and leaned back, ready for confrontation. Recovering my balance, I swiveled back myself, and as I turned in a mixture of shock and fear, our eyes met. Then our guards dropped. I laughed. It was the Messenger.
"Well you still standin’," he said, "That’s a start."
"Barely," I said.
"You sick of New Orleans yet?"
"No," I said, then considered it, "Maybe. Why?"
"Few friends of mine are headed out west — to Santa Fe. Looking for someone who can play a lick. You itching to ride?"
I looked at the expanse of Jackson Square, filling with people and music, another day in a strange town attuned to its own rhythm. I felt like that line of that old Bob Dylan song — when you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. And no one was going to miss me at home anytime soon.
"Maybe so," I said, then seeing the Messenger’s wary stare, "Absolutely."
Before night fell, I was crowded in a van with a dozen other drifters, who played dice and read tarot on their long rides across the country. The man nearest me had a Navajo symbol tattooed on his right arm, and told me about the mysteries of the sweat tents and the long journeys they took wandering through the desert.
I played the forgotten blues song to them, and whatever doubts they had about me went away. It wasn’t until much later that they asked me what my name was. I glanced down at my guitar, seeing ‘Orpheus’ carved there, but unwilling to don the identity again.
"They call me Youngblood," I said, before leaning back, relaxing my eyelids, and falling asleep to the lullaby of spinning tires.
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