Come one, come all to New Orleans, where drink flows like the Mississippi and the aura of ages past still lingers.
“Stohm comin, big stohm.” The old woman’s face was the color of wet slate, darkening in the furrows around her white, unseeing eyes and toothless mouth. Her knobby fingers worked deftly, sorting beans as if she had perfect sight.
Adelaide looked up at the clear sky and back at Eula. Eula was never wrong about storms, not in Adelaide’s fifteen years. The girl watched the sunlight play over the peaks and valleys of her nanny’s face. She sometimes thought Eula was old as the Earth itself, older certainly than the Mississippi and New Orleans. She knew the answers to the questions Adelaide hadn’t asked.
“You quiet today, chile,” Eula said, turning her face towards Adelaide.
“I was thinking about the stories,” Adelaide said.
“Which stories be dey?” Eula bobbed her head slightly in time with the sorting; good beans went in the iron pot, bad ones into a basket. She never missed.
“The stories they tell at night in the courtyard, ‘round the fire,” Adelaide clutched the front of her pinafore and raised her eyes to Eula’s face.
The steady cthunk of beans ceased and Eula’s hands stilled on her lap. Adelaide saw the knob in her throat bob up and down once in her thin neck, roped with veins.
“You been walking in de dark, chile? Creepin’ out your bed in de night? How many time Maman Eula tell you, they stories not for you,” Eula’s voice dropped and she reached out a bony hand until she found Adelaide’s smooth, pale wrist and gripped it.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Adelaide said. “They were shouting again. Maman and Papa.”
“I tol’ you before, chile, and I tell you again, you stay in dat pretty bed o’ yours and don’ be walkin’ de house in de night. Your maman and papa—dey be talkin’ loud to make sure dey voices heard to each other, dey don’ mean nothin’ by it.” Eula released Adelaide’s hand.
“It has something to do with why they leave out the coffee and the cigars and the rum, isn’t it?” Adelaide said, defiantly, shoving her fair hair back from her face.
Eula’s fingers returned to sorting, and she began to hum. Adelaide knew she would get no answers this time. She leaned back on the sun-warmed steps and, through slitted eyes, tried to see again the circle around the small fire.
The figures were wrapped in black and white, shifting shadows in the firelight and they sometimes spoke a strange tongue that she almost understood. Neither French nor creole—something else, something that made her skin pebble and her eyes grow wide in the darkness, drinking in the light like a cat’s. Her eyes snapped open as the first raindrops splattered in the dust and rolled down her forehead. The steady drumbeat of thunder sounded like an echo of last night’s chanting and she helped Eula to her feet as they hurried under the portico and out of the rain.
She sat up straight in bed, every nerve tingling as the lightning flashed and lit the whole room. There was shouting outside. She ran to her door and shoved it open. A figure rushed past, carrying something that smelled like overturned dirt and rust. There was a high, keening sound—one of the dogs, she thought—until she thrust herself through the silver-shot darkness and into her parent’s room. The sound came from the woman at the bedside—her mother—Adelaide realized. Her honey hair was loose down her back and Adelaide spared a moment to admire the way it shone in the torchlight.
Maman was holding someone’s hand and Adelaide leaned around her to see. Her father lay in the bed, but something pooled around him and she saw that it streaked her mother’s silk nightgown and the floors. The smell hit her again and she gagged. Blood.
“Chile, chile, don’ go neah dere,” Leon’s strong dark hands appeared out of the darkness and held her close.
“Papa!” she struggled, but she was no match for the big man.
He gently bore her down the stairs and into the kitchen where he deposited her next to the fire before returning upstairs. The old rocking chair smacked the floor in a familiar rhythm but Adelaide didn’t look at Eula. There was blood on one of her bare feet. She strained to hear voices outside the kitchen door through the battle sounds of thunder and lightning.
“Leon say he was out in de Quarter—cards, mebbe—comin’ back from dere wit gold in he pockets…” the voice grew indistinct as the servants moved away.
Adelaide glanced at Eula, rocking placidly in the corner, her head cocked towards Adelaide.
“Don’ be ‘fraid, chile,” she said quietly.
Adelaide barely breathed as she pulled one of the servant girl’s coats off the hanger and wrapped it around herself. She pulled open the big kitchen door and fled back into the main part of the house. Her father’s study was silent, and even the blinding lightning didn’t penetrate the velvety shadows here. She could smell tobacco and leather. She found what she sought and shoved it carelessly in her pockets, holding up coat hem as she crept into the hallway and let herself out the front door.
The streets intersected in a wash of mud and darkness. The street lamps flickered, fitfully illuminating small circles of driving rain around their glass cages. Cold mud pressed between her toes and her breath steamed. She pushed back her hair, plastered wetly to her face, and stumbled on the too-large coat, sprawling in the mud at the crossroads.
“Baron Samedi!” she cried, her childish voice almost lost in the storm. “Viens ici!”
Her hands shook as she pulled her prizes out of her pockets—the decanter of her father’s finest rum from their plantation, miraculously unbroken, and a handful of his best cigars. It would have to be enough. There was a flash of lightning so bright it made the hair on her arms sizzle.
“Bon soir, cher,” a high, nasal voice greeted her and Adelaide blinked.
A tall man stood before her; he tipped his gleaming top hat, leaning on a cane he seemed to have conjured out of the darkness. He flicked the tails of his coat and bent down to grab her arm. His fingers were impossibly thin and her eyes ran over his black and white suit to his face. Dark flesh stretched tightly over bones, his black eyes gleamed, and his teeth flashed bone white.
“Ah, p’tite,” he lifted her easily by the elbow. “What you be doin’ heah at de crossroads, cher?”
“My papa, he’s hurt—dying. I know you can keep him here, m’sieur.”
“What you be bringin’ me den?” he asked.
Adelaide held out the items with shaking hands. “I couldn’t find any coffee, m’sieur.”
The baron threw back his head at this and laughed and Adelaide could more clearly see the bones beneath his skin. He grinned at her and reached out to pluck the decanter and cigars from his hands. They disappeared somewhere inside his coat.
“Merci, ma belle, merci. How you come to know me, chile?” He asked.
“I listen to the stories the servants tell at night,” she said.
“And den dey tell you to call for me?”
“No,” her voice shook. “My papa was dying and none of them were doing a thing to help him. Please, m’sieur. Please.”
“Hush now, ma belle, stop de tears,” the baron smoothed her soaked hair back from her face and tipped her chin up with his long fingers. “Your fadder, he will not pass dis way tonight.”
It took Adelaide a moment to understand and tears streamed down her cheeks, “Oh merci, m’sieur, merci beaucoup.”
Baron Samedi tapped her on the cheek, “Jus’ remember de service I do today, me. And remember, if you need me again…” he bent in close to whisper in her ear, “…bring de coffee, ma belle.”