Walking through New Orleans last week, my mouth curled up into a little smirk. One stroll down Esplanade Ave, it’s lush trees and vines glowing in the pale light of an autumn moon, and I understood why so many writers called this place home, or want to. The city is a wanton creature, sultry and knowing, a mystery tucked around every corner. To walk its streets and learn its history is to learn the story of our country, from the Louisiana Purchase to the end of slavery and the Civil War.
One minute you’re in your hotel, the next on Bourbon Street watching tourists drink themselves into oblivion. There is no last call in New Orleans and I can imagine a few of the folks I saw – their gigantic Mardi Gras beads swinging around their neck as they hurled themselves through the gauntlet of topless bars and watering holes – waking up feeling close to death.
Fortunately, you don’t have to move too far off Bourbon to find the real French Quarter, less flash and more homegrown art and music. Suddenly you’re walking behind a marching band waving your hands and just like that, the city has stolen your soul.
Speaking of death and souls, one has to move gingerly through New Orleans’s cemeteries with their uneven surfaces, resurrection ferns and graveside offerings. If you’ve never lived below sea level, the harshness of their burial rituals is breathtaking – tossed out of a casket and stuffed down into the crypt a year and a day after your burial. The place feels fuller, one hundred years of family matter commingling with the earth. I can almost see the proverbial bell that was allegedly tied to the corpse’s toe to ensure they weren’t buried prematurely. One guide told me that many people were saved by the bell, only to be stabbed through the heart mere seconds later–suspected of being vampires, not comatose yellow fever victims.
Riding on the old St. Charles Street Car, listening to the engine’s compressor cough and sputter while idled at the stoplights, I marveled at the grand antebellum homes in the Garden District, so different from their more compact Spanish-built neighbors inside the French Quarter. Bloodlines mattered here way back when, and if you listen closely you can almost hear the voices of the dead whispering to us to remember their stories.
I came to New Orleans to find a voodoo priestess. Not the kind conjured up in Hollywood movies that spits rum and fire and puts snakes in people’s beds. I was looking for the real thing, someone who practices Voodoo as a religion and could tell me more about how it’s all done. Not to be confused with Hoodoo, which is an altogether different, but, related kind of magic. I wasn’t disappointed, as I left my offerings upon the alters of the Loa, the spirits Voodoo adherents pray to as a part of their observance. There is something very beautiful about leaving tributes to the dead – it’s not a new concept of course – but Voodoo brings it to life through its bottle of rum, coins, cigarettes and flowers, left to honor those spirits who would keep us from harm.
My interest in Voodoo is based on a feeling that Olivia, the heroine in my Dark Horse Trilogy will need the help of more than one ally and mentor to win the battle with her original nemesis, Stoner Halbert – a man who has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for great power and glory. What does it take to beat a great evil like that? In Ursula Le Guin’s stunning A Wizard of Earthsea series, she opines about the fact that a “true wizard only uses …spells at need, since to summon up such earthly forces is to change the earth of which they are a part.”
In other words, each action triggers a reaction – to harbor great evil to one place will have consequences. I like this idea of balance and proportion. There is also a bit of humility built in her story, in all folktales really, of knowing what to use your power for and that is something that Voodoo has in spades. Be careful what you ask for, the saying goes, because you just might get it. Marie Laveau, the great Voodoo Queen of New Orleans is said to have granted a number of people their deepest desires to their everlasting consternation. Balance and proportion, dark and light, good and evil, these are the concepts I’m trying to reconcile as I work on book three in Olivia’s trilogy.
It should be very exciting.