“Until we have seen someone’s darkness, we don’t really know who they are. Until
we have forgiven someone’s darkness, we don’t really know what love is.”
– Marianne Williamson
The air was alive with electricity. Making his way past the staggering hordes of Bourbon Street, the dark figure sought out familiar avenues he once called his own. He permitted his mind a stroll through ancient memories; images long buried suddenly clawed their way to cognizance. Each reflection layered onto the next, a grand crescendo in a symphony for his soul. Titillating scenes of light and shadow flashed across his mind as his olfactory senses restored them to vivid color. Hobbling through the crowd, the old man stopped often, breathing deeply, savoring the smells of authentic Creole cooking and aged whiskey. Even the foul odors of soured garbage and vomit were comforting to his spirit. They smelled like home.
Welcoming a departure from the neon glow, the old man turned his eyes to a familiar, darkened side-street. A sting shot through his arthritic, crippled knee as he stepped from the curb. Pain barked a warning with each step as he crossed the intersection then bit firmly as he stepped back to the sidewalk and limped his way down Ursulines toward Chartres. He delighted in his nocturnal stroll despite the screaming protest of his aged body. Driven by enthusiasm he could not explain, he pushed on, taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells his senses could hold. Each memory produced a sigh of elation to once again be roaming the Quarter – owning it. Besides, he thought, the pain would soon be gone.
Tapping his cane determinedly along the sidewalk, he scanned the street for activity. The area was unusually bereft of stragglers, though there appeared to be some movement in the next block. With the glow of Bourbon behind him, his eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness. Turning them toward the distant sky, he watched between the buildings as lightning illuminated the outlying clouds. He could smell the rain; it was not far off. A brisk, chilly breeze whipped down the street catching him stoutly in the face, urging him to gather his overcoat around his chest and protect his spindly frame. The sudden wind would have easily unseated his top hat, were it not pulled down firmly across his brow.
As he approached the intersection at Royal, the old man slowed his pace, yielding to a tour group shuffling up the walk like sheep behind their shepherd. He loathed tourists, but respected their place as a necessary evil. For an instant, the irony of his silent judgment stabbed him like an ice pick. Here he was, walking the Quarter, feeding off its aura just as they were. Perish the thought! He belonged here. He was home. Though his travels kept him away far too long, New Orleans was in his very blood.
He lingered quietly on the outer edge of the group, intrigued by the commanding timbre of the tour guide’s voice. For such a young man, the guide had a keen knowledge of the area and its general history. He was obviously well-studied and held the group’s attention admirably. Though his dusty Panama and beige safari shirt offered him little distinction from his camera-happy tourists, the guide was surely a native. The absence of a jacket, however, screamed of either ill-preparedness or lack of concern for the approaching weather.
The old man listened as the guide pointed to a haunting structure on the corner and recounted the story of Jacques Saint Germaine, an infamous New Orleans resident of the 1920’s. A thrilling, multilingual conversationalist and musician with a flare for hosting extravagant parties, St. Germaine held a striking similarity in character to the Comte Saint Germain of France circa 1700. Though he entertained the elite of New Orleans on many occasions with lavish dinners, Jacques was never seen eating a bite, only drinking his wine.
“One night, a panicked woman ran screaming to the police, having jumped from the second floor gallery of this building,” said the guide in a sobering tone. “Claiming a narrow escape after being attacked by St. Germaine, the woman insisted he attempted to bite her neck and convinced police to investigate. Upon searching his residence,” the guide continued, gesturing again to the building behind him, “The police found that St. Germaine had vanished, but a thorough search of the premises uncovered evidence of strange and macabre practices. Police found several large bloodstained tablecloths and dozens of bottles of wine mixed with human blood.”
The old man silently scoffed at the gasps from the crowd as the tour guide suggested St. Germaine was a vampire who might still walk the Quarter to this day. “Tourists and their pop-culture fascinations,” he thought with mild amusement. He watched their eyes feverishly scan the night, clearly hoping to catch a glimpse of some silly sparkling entity. He listened as long as he could, chuckling to himself at the absurdity until he was politely asked to move along out of respect for those who “paid good money” to participate in the tour. Without a word, the old man politely tipped his hat and continued on his way as lightning once again split the horizon.
He could still hear the commanding voice of the guide as he limped his way to Chartres Street and turned right. His other knee soon joined the first in painful protest. Cursing his mutinous joints, he paused to massage the tender spot just above the kneecaps. “Patience,” he thought, wincing, “Not much longer. It will all be over soon.”
In the distance, the old man could see the lights of Saint Louis Cathedral; the sight gave him strength to push onward. For the next few blocks, his will fought a grueling battle: his mind craved desperately to remain lost in memories of the past fueled by the very air of New Orleans, but his aching body demanded attention over and over again. His sense of smell was his mind’s strongest ally.
“I guess it’s true what they say,” he thought, as a sex worker crossed his path and the pursuing scent of her cheap perfume lofted onto the breeze. “Odors always trigger the strongest memories.” The prostitute walked arm in arm with her liberally intoxicated new friend, her forced laughter echoing off the brick buildings as they made their way from Bourbon to who knows where. Business was escalating, the old man surmised. With Mardi Gras approaching, the energy of the Quarter was beginning to quicken – like the first wave of ants from an upset mound. In a few short weeks, the colony would be swarming at full tilt and the resulting chaos would provide a fantastic veil. Streetwalkers would be a dime a dozen, he thought, easily overlooked and hardly missed. The thought brought him to Saint Ann Street with no further consideration of his pain.
As the old man crossed St. Ann, his view opened into the square. The cathedral’s powerful floodlights illuminated its face like the mid-day sun. Its three tall spires stretched for what seemed like miles into the night sky, their sharp peaks lost to the darkness.
Thunder rumbled low as the lightning persisted, and the old man took in the static-charged air like his first breath on earth. Though his body was crippled by age, his hearing was remarkably intact. Listening closely, he could make out raindrops falling on the foliage of Jackson Square, though he could not yet feel the drizzle.
The mall area in front of the cathedral was alive with people huddling together and bundling their coats in preparation for the coming rain. The benches near the streetlamps cleared as visitors sought shelter. Several fortune tellers had already blown out their candles and taken up their card tables and make-shift altars. One, however, remained. She sat directly across from the cathedral’s entrance and stared up at the clock, as if it were not yet time to leave – as if waiting for someone.
The old man tightened his grip on the polished silver handle of his cane. His palms began to sweat in tethered anticipation as he clutched its contoured surface. Driving the cane hard against the brick street with each step, he approached the motionless gypsy. The woman’s face was worn with unkind years and the flickering glow from her array of candles did little to hide her lines. She wore a lavender, silk scarf around her head adorned with thin, gold chains and tiny coins. The cheap decoration was intended to elicit the confidence of naïve tourists who considered her service novelty. Other card readers who frequented the square nightly saw no need for such trite, costumed attire, preferring to work in street clothes while rolling their eyes in contempt. Madame Zoe, however, confident in her craft, having honed it over years of study and practice, was business-savvy enough not to cast aside a simple ruse that more than doubled her revenue. An outfit of silk scarves, heavy eyeliner, and copious hoop bracelets was a small price to pay for a competitive edge and additional income. Tourists were delighted by Madame Zoe’s appearance, and her regular clientele didn’t object to the charade; they were convinced of her talent and foresight, having witnessed many years of accurate predictions. Tonight, her heavily painted eyes turned slowly toward the approaching stranger.
The old man kept his face hidden beneath the brim of his top hat as he silently slipped his hand into the pocket of his coat. Without a word, he dropped a fifty dollar bill onto the weathered card table and waited patiently. Madame Zoe was uncomfortable. The growing anxiety plaguing her since early in the evening now culminated in a near-crippling state of paranoia. With trepidation, she took the bill and folded it twice before slipping it into the small, beaded coin purse she kept on a chain around her neck. Surprised by the slight tremor in her hands, she moved a tall candle from the edge of the table to better illuminate the center, then slid a well-worn tarot deck to the other side. As she motioned for the stranger to cut the cards, Madame Zoe bent low trying to see the man’s eyes. Her effort was unsuccessful. The stranger pulled his hat down a bit more while he silently split the deck. Setting his feet, he relaxed into a more comfortable stance, resting both hands on his cane to take the weight from his aching knees.
Madame Zoe retrieved the cut cards and held them between her outstretched palms. A disturbance deep in her spirit told her to drop them and run, but the same feeling that held her in the cathedral square drew her to the mysterious stranger: an unnerving assurance that she was exactly where she was supposed to be. Closing her eyes, Madame Zoe placed her thumb firmly on top of the deck and began to deal her signature pattern – an eight card variation of the familiar Celtic cross. One by one, she placed the cards face down on the table.
When the pattern was complete, Madame Zoe put the deck aside and with her thin, heavily-ringed fingers, turned over the first grouping. A deep breath later, she opened her eyes. The sun card, the ten of pentacles, and the nine of swords reflected the man’s past. “You’ve lived a long life,” she said, lifting her eyes.
The old man sighed. He did not need a mystic to tell him when he was born. He was, in general, quite disinterested in his past, but like the necessary evil of the tourists in the quarter, it was a critical part of the reading. He knew without an accurate interpretation of his past, Madame Zoe was powerless to reveal his future. He harnessed what was left of his patience and waited.
Sensing his tension, Madame Zoe turned her eyes back to the cards. “You’ve known great wealth in your lifetime,” she relayed as her mouth grew unusually dry. Clearing her throat she continued, “But you’ve also seen intense suffering and heartache. Your life is scarred by it, more than I’ve ever seen – like a great shadow of sadness choking everything you… once loved.”
The old man swallowed hard as hatred swelled in his throat. The truth was painful. He wanted to take the cane, wield it like a bat and strike the woman in the temple until her blood flowed like a tiny river between the bricks, but he resisted the urge. He was now confident the old gypsy’s talent was still dead-on. Satisfied, he raised his head slightly as Madame Zoe closed her eyes and turned over the pattern’s next group of three.
Thick clouds rolled in over the river, bringing a fantastic display of lightning. The square was still alight when the gypsy opened her eyes to read the cards. The three of wands, the fool, and the devil card revealed the old man’s present. Madame Zoe was taken aback. Never before had a reading stirred her spirit to fear, but it gripped her now like a tightening vice. Years of reassuring clients the devil card simply indicated a concern for the subject’s own inner fears suddenly all felt wrong. Now visibly shaking, Madame Zoe knew, without a doubt, this card represented an outward terror. Nearly afraid to speak, she chose her words carefully, focusing instead on the other cards. “I see business,” she stammered, “A new beginning. Travel. You’ve traveled here recently, but you are no stranger to the area. You’ve been to New Orleans before, lived here, many years ago.” The man’s awkward silence persuaded Madame Zoe to continue, concerned. “There’s something else here,” she said, shifting in her seat. “I don’t know what it is you’re running from mister, but it stalks you like a wolf.”
Madame Zoe stopped there. Whatever hunted the man was nothing compared to his passion for that which he hunted; she saw it in the cards and she felt it in her bones.
For the final time she closed her eyes and flipped over the remaining two cards. As they fell onto the table, time stood still. A sinking sensation overcame Madame Zoe, like dropping too fast in an elevator. A bright flash of light blinded her inner eye as a vision of her dear friend Mama Lu danced across the stark-white canvas. The figure spun slowly, her face stretched in a wide smile, her garments swaying grandly. With a whip of her neck, Mama Lu stopped spinning and slowly approached the waiting gypsy. As her face grew larger against the bright canvas, her smile began to fade. By the time her image filled Madame Zoe’s field of vision, Mama Lu’s expression was pained. With an abrupt jerking motion, she launched into a hollow scream just before her face burst into flames. Madame Zoe watched in horror as Mama Lu was consumed by fire, leaving only the remnants of a smoldering, tortured skull.
Searing pain shot through the gypsy’s temple, traveling along the nerves to the base of her neck while the vision went dark. Weakened to a vulnerable state, Madame Zoe gathered her strength and dared to open her eyes. Her frightened gasp was audible. In the center of the spread lay the high priestess crossed by the death card. With her mouth fixed open, Madame Zoe gazed up at the mysterious stranger. She watched his eyes emerge from beneath his hat as he studied the final grouping. For the first time in her life, the old gypsy was petrified, unable to move. In his eyes she saw something she never thought possible: a visible manifestation of unbridled evil – pure hatred. Anxiety closed her throat like setting concrete. She tried to speak but could not form words. She tried to move, but her muscles were bound by unseen restraints. Slowly, her eyes drifted upward to the clock at the top of the cathedral, and she stared while its great hands came to a dead stop. Catatonic, she sat helplessly as the rain began to fall.
A bold wind whipped icily through Jackson Square as the crippled man hobbled around the table. Positioning himself behind the stoic gypsy, he slipped his hand around her neck. She felt his warm breath on her cheek as he whispered in a language she did not understand. As the old man’s chant-like phrases cascaded across her ear, Madame Zoe felt a presence wash over her, consuming her consciousness. Though she could not identify it, she knew it was not of this world.
A thin smile crept across the old man’s face as heavy raindrops rolled off the brim of his top hat. He did not need to hear the gypsy’s interpretation of the final cards; he saw what he came to see. Producing an antique, gold pocket watch from beneath his coat, the old man flipped the cover open and stared at the hands as if expecting them to move. They did not. Furious, he snapped the watch shut and shoved it deep into his pocket. With his cane tapping loudly across the bricks, he limped off in the direction of Decatur Street, leaving the crowd’s few remaining stragglers scurrying for shelter in his wake – all but the one gypsy, who sat at her table staring at the motionless clock high atop the face of St. Louis Cathedral while the pouring rain extinguished her candles and dampened her cards.
In defiance of her tightening muscles, the old woman harnessed every ounce of energy she could muster, extended a single finger, and drew lines on the wet table. As the drops fused together in the trail of her fingertip, Madame Zoe scrawled a single word of warning in the gathering rain. By the time she formed the last letter, the first was already gone. Soon, the message was entirely washed away, along with the remains of her consciousness.
Hours later, the shrill scream of a fair-skinned young girl echoed off the flat, metal side of a dumpster in an alley just off Bourbon Street. It scarcely drew attention; not a single head turned.