My old man used to work on one of them boats.
Everyone turned to her nicotine stained nail pointing across the French Market to the water. A steamboat was chugging past, the paddle at the rear churning up gray waves.
That there’s the Creole Queen. You folks can get a nice meal on board if you’re in town long enough, even hear some jazz.
The guide flicked the reins towards the donkey, a cackle building up in her throat.
Twenty years on the Mississippi, and he couldn’t swim a lick.
It started as a laugh, but halfway through it twisted into a cough so fierce she almost dropped the reins. The donkey veered to the right, and they all felt the carriage lilt.
Mama! Big Mama, you fool! Don’t you go headin’ that way, baby girl.
One tug of the leather and Big Mama was back on track, hooves clacking on the cobblestones as they turned off Decatur Street. Emmy held the camera in her lap, not wanting to look like the others as they lurched through the French Quarter.
Away from the river the balconies began, heavy with ivy and magnolia blossoms. She loved watching the parade of colours, green winding around the rust of sagging ironwork, through the vivid shutters of the shotgun houses and Creole cottages they passed. Eight days in New Orleans, and most of the photos she’d taken had been of houses.
Well, and the sky.
She’d never seen anything like it. It was like a bruise held over the city, black turning into purple, twisting into dark blue. People just shrugged when she asked when it was likely to hit, what she should be doing. They were calling it a tropical storm as though it were nothing to blink at, but one newsreader had used the word hurricane, and the word had cut through the din of the bar as she drank her gin. There were no hurricanes in the tiny Australian town she grew up in, just bushfires that turned the moon red and rained ash onto her hair.
She was a long way from home.
Emmy heard a burst of music from an upstairs window as they crossed North Rampart Street, trombones blaring. Big Mama knew where to stop and as the carriage drew up next to a low white wall, the guide cleared her throat. Her voice was deep from cigarettes and mellowed by an accent Emmy couldn’t copy if she tried.
This here’s St Louis Cemetery – y’all got fifteen minutes. Laws say I can’t leave Big Mama but I’ll be waiting here when ya get out. Turn left at the pyramid, right at the headless statue, and straight ahead to see the tomb of Marie Laveau, the voodoo queen.
She reached out and stroked the donkey’s flank with the back of her hand.
But y’all be careful, ok? Some folks like to prey on tourists here…keep ya wits about ya, is all.
Emmy climbed out of the carriage without making eye contact. Left at the pyramid, right at the headless statue. She ran her hand along her throat and collected the sweat, dipping her fingers into her cleavage. The humidity had swelled her curls into a Medusa mane that spiraled out at angles she hadn’t even seen before. The winds sweeping up from the Gulf of Mexico, one step ahead of the storm, kept whipping her hair into her eyes, her food, her mouth, and she had no choice but to keep it tied in a knot, hanging heavy at the nape of her neck.
She let the others go first. The heat was relentless as she picked her way over the concrete, stepping around cracks thick with weeds. The headless statue rested in an alcove ten feet above her. She lifted the camera and aimed it at the tomb, her finger on the shutter. But before she could press it she found her hands drifting upwards, until the screen held nothing but streaks of black cloud against the blue sky.
She clicked. Her hands dropped to her waist, but her gaze remained high.
It was only when she remembered the fifteen minutes that she wound the camera strap around her wrist, and turned right.
She’d never heard of Marie Laveau until she came to New Orleans, but then again, there wasn’t much talk of voodoo in Australia. She’d spent twenty minutes in a shop on Bourbon Street, cradling gris-gris charms and chancitos in her palm, trying not to choke on the incense wafting her way. Rows of tiny alligator heads lined the shelves, their glass eyes staring down at her. Later that night she sat at Coops with bowl of rabbit jambalaya, and a small chicken foot on the table in front of her. A chicken foot. She shook her head. That’s my souvenir from New Orleans? But the man had said it was ideal for initiating change and regeneration, and she’d pulled the green notes out of her purse without a word.
The voodoo queen’s tomb was impossible to miss. Resting at its base were offerings of eggshells and dead flowers, photos with torn corners and animal bones. Crisscrossing the concrete was a riot of tiny red X’s, some in lipstick, and even some with tear drop bottoms that looked like streaks of blood. A spell to make your wish come true, the guide had cackled.
Emmy frowned down at the offerings. She wanted to kneel and touch them, run her hands over them, but the thought that perhaps some little flicker of voodoo would jump onto her, grab hold of her curls and nestle in, kept her still. Her gaze landed on a translucent snakeskin, coiled and trembling in the wind, and her hand slowly raised, the fingers opening, until it rested against her breastbone.
Emmy stood, the wind whipping her skirt around her bare legs. Five minutes left. And then her bag was open at her feet, spilling out hair pins and a mirror, passport and pens. There had to be something, some skerrick of herself she could leave at this place, slide under a shard of brick and pin to New Orleans. She crouched as her hands rummaged, closing and releasing, anxiety starting to rise.
Three minutes. Maybe she should draw crosses instead, in red nail polish. That was what the guide said, right? Three minutes now to cast her spell, to send a wish out that could never come from her mouth, and then run through the cemetery back to Big Mama.
Emmy rested on her haunches with her arms wrapped around herself. And then her hands met her face, and curled around the back of her neck. What the hell was she doing? Leaving offerings to a voodoo goddess in the middle of New Orleans? The heat must be getting to her, or the storm.
She scooped her belongings into the bag and stood. Two people came around the corner, candles nestled into the crooks of their arms. Emmy slung the bag over her shoulder and turned, knocking down the knot of hair. Her curls fell down her back and were instantly picked up by the wind, snaking back and forth just outside her line of vision.
When she thought back to it later, there was no decision made. Her hands just reached into her roots, and grabbed hold. One good tug, then two, and she was striding back to the tomb. She found a chicken bone, bleached brittle by the sun, and wound the auburn strands around and around without a glance at the people watching her.
She was ten steps away before she turned back. All she could see was streaks of red against the paleness, like sinews still attached to the bone.
I know what my ink is trying to tell me.
Sometimes, when the cycle won’t turn, you have to reach out a boot and kick it into motion.