I recently submitted a piece for an anthology about personal experiences with deity. The anthology didn’t end up happening (for lack of submissions), so I thought that I would post my piece here.
The Gods Walk in New Orleans
I don’t know about elsewhere, but the Gods walk around New Orleans like it’s nothing new. Let me tell you a story…
I woke up from a lazy Sunday afternoon nap, listening to my significant other work on a new song that he’s writing. This is the end of the time that he spends at home with me. For four months of the summer he’s gone, singing for people that I’ll never meet. He likes to use this time to prepare new songs and stories to tell. It’s always a pleasure for me to listen to him from other rooms, while he’s creating magic with his music. He doesn’t think it’s a big deal, but I know that these are things that I could never do. I’m fascinated by how easily he puts notes and chords together to create something entirely new. Poetry pours from him in waves that he either uses or discards without any thought that these words might never come back to him.
I woke up knowing that he had someone else in the studio working with him. The woman was singing with him and every now and again, she paused to murmur something too low for me to catch. I had fallen asleep earlier in the afternoon and had slept hard. He hadn’t told me that anyone was coming over, but since it was Sunday and he was working on the new album, I assumed that he must have been able to get a hold of someone to do some vocals for him.
I was buried under my great aunt’s afghan in the air conditioning and I was frozen in indecision. I was stark naked. We live in a shotgun apartment in New Orleans. If you’ve never been in a shotgun apartment, they’re a series of four or five rooms that run all in a line. If you want to get to the back of the house from the front, you have to walk through all the rooms in-between to get there. I was worried that this unknown person might need something to drink or to use the restroom and would have to walk through our bedroom to do so. Usually, being naked around people doesn’t bother me, but when it’s a stranger and I’ve had no warning of their presence, I prefer to be clothed.
I finally decided that instead of risking getting up and flashing whoever this poor, unsuspecting person was, I would remain under the blanket and sleep a little longer. It was Sunday afternoon after all and I had already indulged in an indecently long nap, why not snooze a little more? Maybe by the time I woke up again, they would be done working on the song and whoever it was would have left. The woman’s voice was soothing and my lover’s guitar strumming was softer than it might be, so I drifted back to sleep listening to the woman and my lover sing together.
I woke up a couple of hours later to realize that he was still working on the song, but the woman, whoever she was, had gone. I felt a sense of irrational disappointment. I had enjoyed sleeping to the music they made together. I got up, put on some comfortable clothes, and pulled out a book to while away the rest of the beautiful New Orleans Spring Night. The house was quiet and peaceful. There was nothing at all rushed and hurried about that long Sunday afternoon.
My partner made us dinner and we re-watched a movie that has always been one of my favorites. Somehow the topic of the afternoon came up. I asked him who he had found to work with him on the new song. He gave me a baffled look. “No one was here, baby, I was working on a song about the Goddess Diana…”
This is not the first time I’ve experienced the Gods and other spirits walking in our house. A whole slew of fairies live in the same studio that my lover sang with a Goddess in. My shiny hair pins and bits of jewelry disappear constantly, only to reappear months later. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night paralyzed with fear, realizing that something is in bed with me. At first I usually think that the cat has decided to come sleep with us, and then I realize that no cat moves or breathes like that. It’s a feeling akin to that which I felt as a little girl waking up from the nightmare and KNOWING that there was something sitting in the closet staring at me. And who knows? Maybe there was… The cat regularly plays tag with and talks to things that I can’t see. Invisible beings perch on my knees and sit with me as I read. Every now and again something bites me in a teasing manner. I think they know that I don’t like them. It’s difficult living in a house with fairies when you don’t necessarily appreciate them.
I meet Baron Samedi on the streets of the Quarter regularly. He peers out at me from the people who carry him with them. Occasionally a tall, skinny man in a top hat, with a skull face winks at me as he strolls by. When our house was robbed by the teenagers across the street, my lover and I offered blood to the Baron to watch over us and to give back threefold what had been done to us. He knows me now, in ways that others do not. I often worry about what other price we might end up paying.
My father used to tell me a story when I was a little girl, about when his appendix ruptured and all that he knew was that he was very sick. He likes to reminisce about waking up to see a faceless figure robed in grey sitting in the chair next to his bed. He said that that’s when he knew that it was time to go to the hospital. When I ask him how he felt about Death sitting with him, he piffles at me and says, “That? That was my guardian angel watching over me”. Maybe my father is right, maybe Death is his guardian angel. He still tells me that he talks to Death regularly and that Death always listens. Maybe the Death that my father knows and my Baron Samedi are familiar with each other and pass back and forth their knowledge of my father and I like two old men playing dice.
New Orleans is a magical place: it is an old place. Ghosts walk the streets of the Quarter amongst the strolling tourists. The LaLaurie mansion sits on the corner of Royal and Governor Nicholls. The house, supposedly one of the most haunted houses in America, seems to decide how it would like people to perceive it. There are days that I walk past it and it looms ominously over the rest of the street with a chill, forbidding air. Other days I pass by it and don’t realize that I didn’t notice it at all. Tourists regularly run into the Verti Marte, the little sandwich and grocery shop across the way, pleading with the people behind the desk to call 911 and tell them about a little girl that has fallen off the roof across the street. The grocers shrug their shoulders and tell the people to either buy something or to get out. She died nearly three hundred years ago, after all.
I like to walk up to the shore of the Mississippi. I spoke to Santa Muerte one night and she made her refusal plain by burning the candle, the wood beads, the chocolate and everything else that I had brought as offerings to her. My partner works with and regularly calls down the God Herne. His eyes change colors and his breath smells like new grass and my lover is no longer at home in his own body. The weather witches talk about leaving offerings to the Lady of Lake Pontchartrain. It is only when she is appeased that we don’t have hurricanes. Pontchartrain is easily forgotten by me, someone who didn’t grow up on her shores, but I know that she is always there. It was only six years ago that she rose up and took 11,000 lives. Those dead sleep restlessly in our cemeteries. They are awaiting the day where they can get up and walk about once more. Whenever I pass through one of their resting places, I leave an offering in hopes that when that day comes, they remember me and pass me by.
I thought that I was prepared for New Orleans when I moved here. But how can you be prepared for standing in the middle of the swamp and listening to a Voodoo Mamba wail into the night? The swamps of New Orleans are not like the forests that I grew up in. In some ways they are much more sinister, in others they are much more inviting. I have always heard stories of Will-O-the-Wisps, but never lived somewhere where I expected to see them. Here I do. New Orleans has opened up the world of that other place for me. Do the Gods walk elsewhere? I’m sure they do, but not in the ways they do here. Here they are almost like everybody else, busy doing their work and sometimes saying hello when they pass by…