New Orleans, LA
Once upon a time, the dead and the living managed to live together in harmony. It wasn’t a belief that many people tended to cling to, especially since the dynamics of such a thing were difficult to comprehend. The young man kneeling by the crypt knew it to be so, a spirit had told him so, right before walking into the white stone of the tomb in front of him.
No, she had walked through it. He couldn’t forget that, nor could he forget the many stories he’d heard in so short a time. Drew had to glance around once again to make certain that it was still an early afternoon in New Orleans, hotter than sin in the sunlight but nice and temperate in the shade.
“She walked through it,” he muttered, gazing down at the dark brown skin of his hands as though they held the answers he was looking for. One might have thought he’d been given all the answers he needed, but right now all he had were questions.
“Excuse me, can we get a picture with the tomb?”
Drew turned to glance behind him, blinking as he muttered an apology before standing aside. The two tourists, that was all they could be with their bright clothes, big, dark sunglasses, and strange accents, thanked him as he moved aside.
“Oh, hey, I hate to ask, but can you take our picture?”
“Yeah,” he replied, coming back to himself, “Sure.” He even forced himself to smile in a friendly manner, even as deep down he couldn’t help but fight the urge to yell at these two white women to stop fawning over the tomb. He knew that wouldn’t be well-received, especially in this day and age. But for some reason, the thought of anyone standing in front the tomb irked him in that moment. As the woman handed him her cell phone he found that the camera function was already on as the two ladies, pretty as they were he had to admit, stood arm in arm in front of the tomb.
As they were settling for the picture they turned, as did Drew, to watch a young teenaged male come running from the right, his stride enormous as when he was only one leaping stride away, he jumped, or tried to. Drew felt his eyes widen as the two ladies both acted quickly, yelling at the younger man to “Stop!” as he skidded to a sudden halt and landed firmly on his butt, skidding a little further as he almost ran into the two of them.
“Ow!’ the teenager complained “What the hell was that for?!”
“That’s not at all respectful young man,” the older of the two snapped, leaning over to scold him as Drew felt his estimation of the two women jump just a little. “You don’t run in a cemetery and you sure as hell don’t go jumping on people’s tombs!”
“Oh blow it out your ass you old bag!” the teenager shouted back, inspecting his palms as he saw that they’d been abraded by the sliding stop, “I could call the cops on you for this! I should call the cops and get your old ass arrested!” He was rising to his feet and was just raising his head up when the younger of the two stepped forward and punched him, not too hard, but just enough to plant him on his butt once again. He squawked in protest and surprise, and probably a little bit of pain, and Drew couldn’t help but grin as the two women continued to unload a mini-barrage of withering verbal abuse on him until the young kid, nose bloodied and hands skinned, went running off while trying spit a curse or two through lips that were probably swelling already.
“I am so sorry about that,” the older of the two women said, addressing Drew and the few others that had gathered around the tomb. “But that just wasn’t needed.”
“No worries ma’am,” said an older, portly gentleman as he tipped his ballcap, “We all saw it and we all appreciate it.”
“Yes ma’am” said another woman nearby. Others expressed their approval, but only Drew appeared to see the lighter-skinned woman standing in front of the tomb, her wry smile focused directly upon him as she nodded once at Drew before disappearing into the crypt once again.
“I am so sorry for that,” the woman said, finally coming back to Drew, “Can you still take our picture?”
“Oh, yes ma’am, no worries,” he said with a grin, one that she matched as she went to stand by the other woman. As Drew lined up the shot, a face appeared between the two women, faint, but definitely there.
He was still grinning as he took the picture. She’d been right, sometimes life was full of pleasant surprises.
* * *
Two days later Drew returned to the crypt of Marie Laveau to find a young woman kneeling in front of the crypt door, much as he had done only two days prior. Irritation and jealousy warred within Drew’s heart at that moment, but as he saw the young woman’s lips moving he found reason to pause as he glanced one way and then another. Normally there were plenty of tourists making their way through the old cemeteries, as they were one of the main attractions that New Orleans, or as tourists liked to say it, Nawlins, had to offer. The locals put up with it and in some ways encouraged it since the city had become a huge tourist attraction a long time ago and brought a great deal of money throughout the year from those wanting to see one of the more historic cities in the USA for one reason or another.
But Drew had always felt as though the cemeteries were being misused in a way, as though they should have been off-limits to the lookie-loos that wanted nothing more than a picture with a part of New Orleans culture to say that they’d been there. Respect for the dead wasn’t a big deal to a lot of people, but maybe that was why he’d been contacted the way he’d been. A thought crossed his mind in that moment that maybe this young white woman on her knees was being given the same insight that he had. Jealousy tried to stir in his heart once again, but he tamped it down easily as she opened her eyes, blinking rapidly as she gasped ever so softly.
It was at that moment that she noticed him watching. Drew looked away, suddenly embarrassed, but he was confused as well since there was still no one to be seen, no tourists, no caretakers, no one. He couldn’t even hear the traffic that was prevalent around this part of the city. What was going on?
“You too, huh?”
Curly red hair with streaks of blonde and violet framed a thin face with round cheekbones and bright, lively green eyes that appeared to sparkle as she looked at him. The young woman, she couldn’t have been older than him, grinned at his dumb expression, smoothing out the light windbreaker she was wearing, a nervous tic perhaps, as she cast her gaze back to the tomb.
“I, ah, I came here, because of a dream. I know, it sounds silly since you and I obviously don’t know each other. But somehow I just feel more, I dunno, open, when I’m here.”
Drew glanced at the tomb, then back at the girl, noting the rumpled blue jeans she was wearing, the scuffed sneakers, and finally the beaten and battered backpack at her feet. And again, he noted the lack of any people around. What was going on?
“You noticed it too,” she said, turning about to look, “I thought I was the only one, but I guess it’s nice to know I’m not in some nuthouse going crazy.”
“What is this?”
She shrugged, “I dunno. I was hoping you might have an answer. My name is Laurie, what’s yours?” Drew glanced briefly at her extended hand before reaching out to shake it, firmly, but not so hard that it would hurt. To his pleasant surprise she returned the shake with the same firmness.
“My name’s Drew,” he replied, “Are you from around here?”
“Nope” she said with a brief shake of the head, “I came down here from Alexandria. It’s not a big trip, but when you’ve got no car and no one to call for a ride.” She shrugged her shoulders, still smiling as her gaze found the tomb once again.
“You’re, homeless?” he asked, feeling immediately sorry that the words had spilled from his lips. Instead of anger or a cool disposition, Laurie just laughed, a sweet and charming sound that confused him at first, but at least didn’t put Drew on the defensive.
“Oh no, not in the least,” she said pleasantly, “It’s just that being an orphan and not having any family around here or any friends, at least not anyone I would want to depend on, it’s just kind of hard to get anyone to help out when I need it, if I need it that is. I’m sorry, I’m rambling.”
“It’s okay,” he said, “I, ah, I like your voice.”
Now if that didn’t sound stupid, nothing else would he figured. Drew expected her to be creeped out as his felt the blood rushing to his cheeks in embarrassment. It was a curse that he was so horribly bashful around women, but she surprised him again by smiling.
“Aw, thank you, I appreciate that. I don’t get a lot of comments other than guys that are trying to get in my pants or swat me on the ass, or pinch it. That really starts to hurt, lemme tell you.”
Drew could only nod, still feeling dumb.
Laurie’s smile didn’t fade as she cocked her head at him, “You’re kind of a shy one, aren’t you?”
“I, ah,” he stammered. If he was feel the heat of his embarrassment before, Drew felt absolutely flush as Laurie strode up to him and, coming to stand to his right, put her left arm around his shoulders as she laughed. It wasn’t a mocking sound, in fact it sounded absolutely wonderful, like something that was meant to make everything better.
“You don’t need to be shy around me guy,” Laurie said as she squeezed his shoulder, “If we end up being friendly I’m all for it, and if it works out into something else, well, we’ll see. Right?”
Drew dared to turn his head and look at her in confusion, “You’re not shy at all, are you?”
“Nope!” she exclaimed happily, “I’ve been a pretty happy person for most of my life, especially after realizing what our friend here,” she pointed at the tomb, “told me in a dream when I was still being bounced around from one foster home to another.”
“You know about her?”
Laurie laughed again, letting go of his shoulder as she sauntered over to the tomb, “Well, I know what she looks like, that her name is Marie, and a few other things that I picked up while reading about her. But apart from that I don’t think that I know everything about her, especially since we don’t really know everything about-yi!”
The young woman had placed her hand almost reverently upon the front of the tomb and had affected a very affectionate look, as though she’d known the woman interred inside, allegedly, on a personal level. Drew was still quite confused, no matter that he knew a great deal about Marie Laveau, the fabled voodoo queen of New Orleans. He was a bit startled as well though when the ghostly woman he’d seen only yesterday appeared once again, pushing through the front of the tomb with her eyes closed as she stepped, actually stepped, onto the risers that led up to the tomb door.
Laurie was still smiling as she said, “I used to hate it when they did that,” she said in between giggles.
“Did what?” Drew said, looking upon the familiar woman that had stepped from the tomb. She opened her eyes slowly as he watched, turning her head slowly to look at Laurie, who inclined her head in respect, and then to Drew, who did the same. The woman smiled as she nodded at them both in turn, her gleaming teeth showing behind dark lips that parted easily as she beckoned them both forward.
“Oh, petit mwen yo,” she said, the words confusing both Drew and Laurie, “So good it is to see two young’uns that still cling to the old ways, eh?”
“That’s Haitian creole I think,” Drew said, glancing over at Laurie as they both stepped closer.
“Wi, jenn cheri mwen, it is, and it is good of you to recognize it.”
Drew felt himself growing flush again at her praise, “I don’t know any of the words ma’am, but I’ve heard it before.”
“I haven’t heard it,” Laurie said with a grin, “Sorry, I’m a bit uncultured.”
“Oh no, not at all,” the woman said, clucking her tongue at both of them, “Many tings have been lost over time, no shame in that. But both of you have remembered respect, an’ that goes a long way, so it does.”
“I agree,” Laurie said, still smiling, “But, that doesn’t explain why there’s, um, no one around.”
“Yeah,” Drew agreed, “Where is everyone?”
“Chile, dat’s my doin’,” Marie said, still grinning, “I was wantin’ this chance t’ speak wit the two of you, to further that lesson that’s brought you here. You seen ‘em, haven’tcha?”
“’Them’?” Laurie asked, her brows furrowing as she cocked her head slightly. Realization dawned on her features in the next second though as she said, “Oh, ‘them’. Right. The, um, ah, the…”
“The dead sweetie, jus’ say it,” Marie said, her deep accent tingeing every word, “You know, there was a time when the dead and the livin’, they stood side by side and didn’t none o’ them have one thin issue with t’ other.”
“But how was that possible?”
Marie clucked her tongue at him as she shook her head, “There are a lot of tings that the livin’ don’ remember young’un. They don’ want to remember ‘em is more like, ‘cause it would mean that they don’ have as good a hold on this here reality as dey tink.”
“But wouldn’t history say something about this? Oh, wait, stupid question, sorry.” Laurie screwed up her features as she raised one hand as though to halt Marie from speaking, but the spectral woman, who looked quite solid at this point, merely chuckled aloud before replying.
“Oh my pretty one,” she said after catching herself, “You is right of course, if d’ livin’ had any notion o’ mentionin’ jus’ how they and the dead done lived by one another for so long, it woulda made it into the histories. But you know why they didn’t?”
“They were scared,” Drew said, averting his eyes as Marie turned back to him with a smile.
“Lemme see those beautiful eyes young’un,” she said, the commanding quality of her voice erasing none of the kindness. He didn’t feel compelled so much as caressed by her words, as though she were asking, not telling him. Lifting his gaze to hers, Drew felt almost everything in his body loosen, almost everything thankfully, but not the important bits.
“You need t’ be strong, young black man,” she said with such compassion that he could feel it to his core, “You look people in the eye when they speak to you, you show that respect I know you got for everythin’. You hear me?”
“Yes ma’am,” he replied, continuing to look her in the eye. Marie nodded as she turned back to Laurie, placing a gentle hand upon her left cheek as Laurie visibly melted under that touch.
“Your kind wan’t never the devils that history says,” Marie said gently, “Y’all were as different as you could be. I knew plenty o’ white women what showed me kindness, an’ the history books ain’t showed but a small inklin’ o’ dat. You is different Ms. Laurie, so much more than the family you came from.”
“What family do I come from?” Laurie asked.
“You don’t know?” Marie asked, shaking her head.
Laurie could only shake her head in reply.
“An’ you?” Marie asked, turning to Drew as he perked up.
“I, I’m fourth generation,” he said quickly, “I mean, my family, we’ve lived in New Orleans all of our lives. The Maxwell’s, or at least, a Maxwell family. The name has come and gone.”
Marie nodded with a small but pleasing smile. “Many names have come and gone in this place, some more recognized than others, but every one o’ them another brick in the foundation o’ this place. It’s like that the world over you know, since the dead do remember, even if the livin’ don’t.”
“What is this place though?” Laurie asked, “I don’t mean to change the subject or anything. But is this where, um, the deceased go?”
Marie laughed, “Don’ be silly my child,” she said in good humor, “This is just one of the many places the dead go. Some call it the quiet place, others call it Limbo, there are a lot of names for it. But it’s a quiet spot I figured we could use to talk.”
Laurie nodded, “About, the dead and living, living together?”
Marie playfully wagged her index finger at Laurie, still smiling, “Yes ma petite, indeed. It’s been so long since anyone wanted to listen that some o’ us were startin’ t’ believe that the livin’ had thought we became make-believe once we stop breathin’, as though the dream was over and someone finally woke.”
“I’m not following,” Drew said, “Our lives are just dreams?”
“That’s the belief honey,” Marie said with a nod, “But it ain’t the truth.”
“What is the truth ma’am?” Laurie asked, folding her hands together.
The ghostly woman gave her young guest a glance filled with mock irritation, “You jes’ hush with that ‘ma’am’ stuff now child, you call me Marie. You done earned that right as far as I’s concerned.”
“Okay then ma’am, I mean, Marie. But what is the truth?”
“Walk with me children,” Marie said with a grin, “I’ll show you a little bit o’ the truth as we go.”
* * *
He’d been caretaker of this cemetery and a few others for a long time now, and each time he saw some out of town tourist walking in through the gates he wanted to toss them out on their ass. With every tour he wanted to wanted to bar any and all entry. The dead deserved more respect than to be ogled and asked for favors. In all his years of taking care of this place, he’d seen all types come and go, and he felt certain that the human race was doomed if this was how they’d come to treat their dearly departed.
Throughout his many years in this place, in the city of New Orleans, he’d seen much, and he’d kept most of it to himself. There wasn’t any point telling people what he’d seen, what he’d done, and what truths he’d learned when he was bound to be mocked relentlessly for them. He lived his life and that was that, he took care of this cemetery and a couple of others, and that was that. His job wasn’t to do repairs, his official title was ‘sexton’ but it had always sounded so ridiculous to him that he preferred ‘caretaker’. His was the responsibility of taking care of the Cities of the Dead, as the cemeteries were called around these parts. They were cities alright, communities unto themselves where the dead congregated when they got it through their minds to do so.
He’d seen it, and so had a few others, but most others ran screaming, or didn’t know how to react. Anyone that told of it though was thought to be a raving lunatic. Eugene had been living on this earth for the past 82 years of his life and he was just as spry now as he’d been when he was still in his 60s, with just a few tweaks here and there in the morning to remind him that he wasn’t a young man any longer. But his mind was still sharp, as he could remember a day when the dark brown of his skin made some people cringe back, while others took him at face value, for better or worse.
People weren’t like that nowadays, at least most people weren’t as he’d seen. They pretended to be ‘woke’, to want to fix the world, to want to give black people a sense of purpose, and to let everyone into this country to have a fair shake at life. He’d laughed more than once at those people, since he’d been pulling himself by his bootheels since the age of 11 when he’d first gone to work on the streets of New Orleans, slinging newspapers and anything else he could find to sell. He’d shined shoes, he’d carried crates for more than one business owner, and he’d accepted everything that came his way with as much dignity as he could muster.
Life hadn’t been easy, but it wasn’t meant to be. Those that complained about how black people were oppressed these days didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Oppression now was basically being told that you had it bad, that because someone in Washington D.C. said so, or because some over-privileged and disillusioned white person said you were miserable, you had to be miserable. It was a bunch of bullshit as far as he was concerned, folks today didn’t know anything about oppression, or about being judged by their skin color.
That was all he had to say on that matter though, since he didn’t waste too much breath on fools or foolish ideas. He accepted everyone as he saw them, and only pared the people talked to down if they made it clear they weren’t worth talking to. Just today he’d seen a plump white couple, probably in their 30s or so, walking into the St. Louis Cemetery No. 1. They were tourists obviously, but there was something about them that felt, well, just right, according to Eugene, as though they could belong anywhere they went. He’d been settled by the front gate, watching people come and go, holding his tongue like always, and selling water and Bud Lights to those that wanted something cool to drink, and decided to call out to the couple. He’d noticed the shirt the younger man was wearing and had quickly made his pitch.
“Hey there Superman!” he’d called out in a friendly voice, “Interest you in a cool drink? Water, Bud Light maybe? Only a dollar!’ He’d chuckled as the man had turned to him, his dark glasses hiding his eyes, but not the warmth of his smile.
“No thanks sir, a couple of those would be my kryptonite today.”
Eugene had found it possible to get a good laugh off of that as he and the young man had shared the laughter. At that moment he’d felt certain that the young man was something special, but he couldn’t have told anyone why since it was just a feeling. When the younger man had stepped over to him Eugene had felt that good feeling even out with something he couldn’t define, but was certain was something else, some darker emotion that didn’t detract from the man, yet still marked him as someone to watch carefully. He’d kept his smile in place, since he’d met plenty of dark-feeling people in his life, and this young man didn’t have that dark of a feel to him.
“Can you possibly tell me where Marie Laveau’s tomb is sir?”
His smile had faded just a bit at that point, but it had held as he had looked away before looking back.
“What do you want with the voodoo queen young man?”
To his own credit the younger man had been rather solemn as he’d replied, “To see her and pay my respects. I’m not asking for anything like so many others.”
Eugene’s smile had widened a bit, “You’ve read about that, eh?”
“Yes sir,” he’d nodded, “I’ve got too much respect for the dead to ask for anything, I’d rather say a quiet thank you and leave it at that. They’ve given enough.”
A chuckle had had the younger man bristling just a bit, but Eugene had mollified him by replying with “You’re right there my man. But Marie was a giving woman, and some say she still likes to give if they’re willing to give in return.”
The young man had shaken his head, “She’s already given me something, I’m just paying my respects by saying thank you.”
“Oh yeah?” Eugene had asked, truly interested at that point, “What’s she given you?”
He’d been rewarded with a warm, pleasant smile as the younger man had said, “Inspiration. I’m a writer from the Pacific Northwest, and I’ve been reading up on Louisiana before my wife and I decided to come here. New Orleans was a point of interest.”
“It usually is,” Eugene had interjected with a chuckle.
“And Marie Laveau just kind of stood out as one of the more prominent names in this city. Once I started reading about her I was hooked, and my stories just started to flow a little easier.”
“You’re a writer?” Eugene had asked, raising his eyebrows.
The other man had nodded. He’d given him the directions to the tomb soon after, watching the man and his wife as they kept a respectful pace while walking among the tombs, the man’s gaze lingering over several of them, almost in reverence, or respect. He’d decided then, as he had in the past, that not all tourists were so bad, that some of them at least brought a healthy amount of respect along with them.
That had only been a few days ago. He’d seen the couple leave, and had still been certain that there was something special about the younger man, but he couldn’t pinpoint it. Eugene had let it go at that point, as he saw people that gave him different feelings all the time. He’d never questioned the feelings he had, since they usually served him well, but as he sat near the front gate of the cemetery today he’d felt something different when he’d closed his eyes for just a few moments, like a shift that he couldn’t fully describe but was easily felt. Upon opening his eyes he’d noticed the difference right away. There were no tourists, no tours going through, no sound, not even the sounds of cars, or leaves skittering across the ground as the winds blew.
This had happened before, and as he glanced to his left he saw two younger individuals walking with a woman he’d seen multiple times before, and he grinned. There was a lot he didn’t know about this world and why it ran the way it did, but he’d been a student of Marie Laveau’s long enough to know when to just accept it and hope that everything turned out for the best. He knew what it meant to live with the dead after all, and trusted in the voodoo queen as she continued to educate those that stuck around, or those that came seeking her for one reason or another.
* * *
She told them much, but then, there was much to be told, and not enough time that either felt was necessary to listen. Marie had insisted that they had all the time in the world here, and had continued to speak. Laurie and Drew listened, and listened, and never once felt themselves growing tired of her voice as the voodoo queen told them of how the dead and the living had lived together, side by side, at one time in history. Obviously, as she’d said, this was no longer the practice, since the living feared the dead too often if they made it know that they were still around, still capable of hearing, feeling, and in some cases interacting.
Drew felt as though her explanations were too simple, but they made sense all the same, as much of what she said rang true. It felt like a day was passing by, then another, as she continued to speak, imparting to them the knowledge that she possessed, knowledge that even one such as her shouldn’t have known. The dead, she stated, knew things that the living could not possibly fathom, and in some cases came to know far more than any living being could given a thousand lifetimes to learn. The dead no longer had any need of accepting truths that the living had used to blind themselves, or any reason to live by the boundaries that the living felt the need to conform to.
In other words, the dead were free in ways that the living could only dream of.
As they continued to sit and listen, Drew felt something brewing deep within his heart, a feeling that he hadn’t experienced save for a few times in his life. As he glanced at Laurie he could see that she was just as caught up in Marie’s words as he was, her eyes almost shining as she took in everything the other woman had to say. He still looked away before she caught him staring, doing his best to make it appear that he’d been paying attention to Marie the entire time. In fact he was trying so hard that he didn’t see the sly grin that crossed her lips, or the knowing but fleeting glance that Marie gave to both of them in turn.
“How many people have you turned on to this idea?”
Marie smiled a little wider at Laurie as she gripped the younger woman’s hand, patting it in approval.
“Entiljan ti kras,” she replied, patting her hand once more, “There’s no foolin’ the two o’ you, is there?”
Drew managed a smile, he hadn’t even thought of asking this, but
“Many people I’ve shown myself to, it’s true,” Marie sighed, “But so few o’ dem listen, so few. Paket moun fou ki pe,” she said, spitting off to the side, “They wan’ come and ask for somethin’, but don’ want ta’ listen to somethin’ great bein’ offered. Pah, let ‘em run I say.” Marie laughed then, a sound so joyous and infectious that Laurie and Drew found they couldn’t resist as they laughed along.
The conversation lasted for what felt like days on end until finally, walking along, they could see that they had managed to make it to the front gate, where the old black man that had been hawking water and beer glanced up to see them coming.
“You can see us?” Drew asked.
“’Course I can youngster,” he laughed, “I can see her too. G’day Miss Marie,” the man said, tapping two fingers against his forehead, a tipping of the cap gesture Drew realized.
“Y’ old foolish man,” Marie laughed, “All dis time and you still call me ‘Miss’? Dese youngsters done already stopped that nonsense. What’s your excuse den?”
“I’s too old and hardheaded Miss,” he said with a smile, causing Marie to laugh again. Glancing over at Laurie, Drew could see that she was smiling ear to ear.
“Alright then young’uns,” Marie said, placing one hand on her hip, “It’s time for dis old bag t’ rest again. But you ‘member what I told you both, yeah? The dead an’ the livin’, they ain’t no different, save one is stuck and one ain’t. Y’all mind me now, and listen.” She pointed her index finger at both of them in turn, still smiling as she began to move off, hobbling a bit as they could see, until finally she had rounded the corner, fading from view completely.
“You get what you needed from the queen?” the gate man asked, casting his gaze to Drew then Laurie. Both of them returned the glance, nodding silently as he nodded in return.
“Best to be on your way then young’uns,” he said, “Here, on the house.”
Drew and Laurie took the bottles of water he’d offered to them, heading out of the gate and down the street without another word.
As they made their way along, the world came flickering back into view as tourists reappeared, the noise of the road could be heard once again, and life resumed its normal pace. Before it did, Eugene could just barely hear the girl ask the young man, “You wanna go find some place to talk?”
Eugene grinned, cracking a beer before taking a swig.