There is no such thing as mundane disbelief on the wretched, glittering streets of New Orleans. No doubt lives among the connoisseurs of gin and light. No hesitation hides behind distorted Mardi Gras masks, only creatures moving lithely through the crowd of wayward travelers. The city breathes in a cacophony of sound. Even the steel factory rattles distantly, like a drum beat. Yet, as Thomas O’Clery stood in the braking trolley car, inhaling the piss and bourbon stench of the city, he felt only a cold numbness. Neither the driverless carriages, or the preternatural weight of hot summer jazz, like a voodoo queen’s curse, could frighten or arouse him. Not anymore.
“Girod Street,” called the haggard trolley man. His hair had shifted from its comb over into porcupine spikes, and his face was flushed from the late afternoon heat. Thomas paid his fair and stepped past the doors. He paused at the telltale click of an automobile over the trolley tracks, allowing a ‘19 Brisco to trundle past, the newest model. The high, white-washed walls of Girod cemetery rose on the other side of the parkway. Thomas swallowed hard and turned left. High above, the lassoed sun steadily dropped in the sky. Thomas ducked into a café, rucksack in hand.
How bizarre it was to be back.
Before, he would have eaten this city alive. New Orleans had been a part of him, from the burn of Cajun spices, to the honk of traffic, to the ethereal thrill of the street performers. He’d grown up on salted crawfish and gumbo. Now, three years later, it was like visiting his grandmother on Christmas and realizing, like a stone in the gut, that she had aged and wrinkled. Since his return to the States, the world felt tilted, as if some figure lurked off the coast in murky waters. He’d sensed it in New York when the Navy boats docked, and it had followed him to New Orleans – an indiscernible listlessness, as though the clocks had gone into double time.
The Great War was over, and all around him people celebrated. As he stepped off the trolley, an older woman reached out to shake his hand. She offered him a festive noisemaker and he politely refused, pretending to be caught up in the whiff of cigars and the crooning dames at the street corner. Thomas shoved past them all. The War to End All Wars, now itself ended, but even as the streets ran with champagne, even as gypsy jazz coaxed them all into a permanent stupor, Thomas felt as though he had gatecrashed a party meant for the end of the world.
He needed—but desperately did not want—to speak to Annabel.
Not for the first time, he thought about not going back. Everything had been easier when she was simply a black and white photograph with worn down edges.
Night had fallen by the time Thomas worked up his courage. He needed no shovel, only the pickaxe in his rucksack, stashed underneath his uniform and a handful of MRE’s. The gate creaked as Thomas entered the cemetery.
Mausoleums rose above his head, set out like city blocks. He crept past the cracked stone pillars and lilting crosses. It felt less like walking into a burial ground and more like wandering a city for the dead. Lichen and apricot plants sprawled in a distorted version of Persephone’s garden. He was, for once, grateful to be below sea level. He’d dug enough holes in the trenches.
Maybe he should have felt shame, desecrating a centuries’ old tomb. Maybe he should have bent down and begged forgiveness or cared about honor like he had on the battlefields. People thought that war made boys into men, but for Thomas it had been the opposite. In the months before his departure he had aged with a desperate fervor, cramming as much life as possible into what time he had left. He’d left high school at 17, started work as a barber in his father’s shop, but when the draft came, he’d left that, too. Then he’d married Annabel, the girl next door, in a flurry of white and sweaty palms and vows that didn’t feel permanent. Nothing felt permanent to Thomas, before.
He had arrived at the eastern front an old man with a distant, but lovely, wife, and a baby on the way, and a shuttered house with lilac paint he never expected to return to. Yes, he had hobbled into war. But it was the gas masks, and the yawning abyss of No Man’s Land, and the unadulterated fear which had caused him to shake and sob like a child. Terror could make anyone young.
Swinging the pickaxe with overzealous force, Thomas struck the cement overhang of a mausoleum labeled, “De Lavielle”, just as the gypsy woman had ordered. The axe’s reverberation, and the crack of the stone were the first real sounds Thomas had heard since the draft came up. The door creaked open with a familiar gasp. That gasp was the space between one drink and the next. It was standing on the front porch gathering the courage to knock. That gasp was the hitching breath between barbed wire and cotton, between the Armistice and the looming threat of Prohibition. Thomas lived in that gasp—in the teetering edge of a jazz lick’s resolution.
“You are a skeptic,” the gypsy woman had whispered into his ear. “You are a disbeliever.”
“I believe,” Thomas had argued. And he did, only it was a desperate belief, a death-bed hope.
“You are afraid.” The shadow of a grin flickered behind her chartreuse veil. The Madame sighed into the humid attic studio. “Most people find faith only when they are afraid.”
“I want to believe you can help me,” said Thomas. Then, quieter, “I’m not old enough to die.”
The voodoo queen gave a sultry devil’s laugh. “Very well, very well,” she said, “If I only served the devout I would be poor indeed.” She turned to the incandescent jars cluttered behind her. The room took on a mystic glow. “I can protect you from the war,” she said. “For a price.”
“I was married yesterday,” Thomas explained. “I have no money for you.” Back then, with President Wilson’s speech still ringing in his ears, doubt did live in the haunted streets of New Orleans. It lived in Thomas.
She fixed him with another perplexing look and, despite the imprint of a face behind her shawl, the voodoo queen seemed suddenly featureless, like a crow-faced Mardi Gras mask, like the expressionless facade of death.
“You do not wish to pay me without proof,” she finally said. “So I will cut you a bargain. Go to war, and when you survive you will know my charm has worked. But,” she plucked a dust-coated flask from the shelves. “Before you return to your old life, you must bring me the heart of a man named De Lavielle. You will find him in the Girod Street Cemetery.”
Thomas had accepted the glass vial and swallowed two fast gulps. It tasted like cigarette ash and spring rain.
“But heed my warning,” the voodoo queen’s voice echoed. “Pay your debts, or I will strike you a wound of which you can never recover. Like a broken leg to a horse, return without payment, and it would be kinder to shoot.”
In 1919, Thomas entered the mausoleum. He pushed through cobwebs, groping blindly in the dark. His eyes squeezed shut of their own accord, as if wary of a crouching monster, or Medusa’s stone gaze. The tomb was empty, save for the six crypts on the far wall, where bodies were kept. Aloisius De Lavielle, it read, 1723-1794. Who was this man to the voodoo queen? Surely Aloisius had been long dead when the Madame was born. The plaque next to Aloisius read Irma De Lavielle, with the inscription Beloved Wife. The rest of the plaques were empty.
Covering his mouth with a handkerchief, Thomas tugged at the white marble. The crypt of Aloisius slid open easily, considering its age. Thomas had expected a skeleton with mere traces of rotted, falling apart organs. Aloisius De Lavielle looked as if he were sleeping, spectacles still balanced on his crooked nose. Black spots on his flesh showed signs of atrophy. A creak sounded in the distance and Thomas glanced toward the open doorway. Only moonlight spilled inside.
Resurrectionists—that’s what people who did this were called. Stealing bodies was a criminal offense, and with the press of blackness all around him, Thomas determined to finish the job quickly. Drawing a knife from his rucksack, he tore open Aloysius’s suit coat and made a large incision in his chest. Thomas hesitated. He wondered if Annabel would flinch away from his touch, if she would somehow feel the blood and soot on his hands. He had longed for her during those restless, gunfire nights. Now he wasn’t so sure. Would he touch her soft skin and feel only mud slicked trenches?
He buried his hand into the decaying cavity of Aloisius. His insides were cold and squishy. The smell was putrid, like sulfur and vomit. Biting back a gag, Thomas clutched the heart and yanked it free. Blood oozed onto the body.
Here it was: the breath before a trembling note, the last shot of gin before midnight, the part of Annabel’s upturned lips. For one terrible moment, Thomas felt the heart of Aloisius beat in his hand. He stared at it in mute horror, and the building crescendo crashed down around him.
Thomas looked down and saw not the withered heart of a stranger, but the small, pink flesh of a daughter he had never held. “Louisa,” he wanted to say, “My girl, my girl,” as if the heart were hers. How unworthy he was to care after someone so small and pure. And, just as the stolen heart stilled, dead as it had always been, a flashlight beam swept the tomb.
“Thief!” Someone yelled, “Stop where you are.” A dog howled in the distance.
Here was his chance, his built-in excuse to flee and never look back. Or to simply turn himself in, be taken to jail, and delay facing the seemingly finalized life in that lilac house. He could choose a prison cot over Annabel’s bed, a convict’s life over a father’s. Then Thomas felt the heart of Aloisius beat once more, faintly. He pressed a hand to the ruck sack, which contained the single worn photograph of Annabel and a bundled, chubby babe. Louisa would be almost three now.
To flee Annabel and New Orleans was to also flee the voodoo queen. As the heart stilled, Thomas considered that old Aloisius, whoever he had been, was revealing the true nature of the voodoo queen’s threat. If he walked away now, Aloisius seemed to say, the guilt would strike a slow and festering wound, of which he would never recover.
He remembered stepping on Annabel’s toes while learning to dance. She’d been laughing as he carried her over the threshold of their new home. Thomas thought of tiny, reaching fingers, and his decision was suddenly clear. Whatever fantasies he had entertained of running off, of reclaiming the childhood he’d lost, seemed as fleeting as the wild celebrations from coast to coast. The infallible youth he’d sought was as meaningless as those street girls’ inviting smiles.
“Step away with your hands out,” the cemetery guard shouted.
His life was not a mausoleum. His home was no crypt. So Thomas ran. The ruck sack covering his face, the heart still clutched in one hand, he stormed past the guard whose flashlight’s beam lit the ravaged tomb. He ran, and for the first time there was air in his lungs, and his chest burned with the pleasure of life, and he felt the cramp in his muscles, and Thomas ran. He ran even after the barking and shouts were gone. He ran towards that voodoo woman’s attic shop, forward, finally forward.
Come morning, Thomas stood on the porch of a lilac house. Inside, a baby cooed and eggs fried on the stovetop. He raised a fist in one final pause.
The silence ended as Thomas struck the door. And, with the rap of his fist, came the cymbal crash, and the reedy screech of the clarinet, and the startling hope of a rising glissando as the next song began, and the door opened.
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