NOUVELLE ORLEANS

NOUVELLE ORLEANS

HYMNS OF SPIRIT & SURRENDER
ABSINTHE * SPANISH MOSS
(this fable intersects with RUINS)

 

March 1862

“Swing low sweet chariot,
coming for to carry me home”
(excerpt from a negro spiritual)

I dreamt a herd of white buffalo appeared at the edge of the flooded city. Their arrival was as silent and as gentle as a Dakota snowfall, a flurry of beasts marching slowly in my direction. Just above, hovering against a pale green sky, milky storm clouds did slowly unravel, not unlike the swirling, milky veil suspended in a glass of absinthe…

As I approached, my eyes chose to look away, fearful of a calamity that should not be viewed up close.

I woke early to find the sun no higher than the retreating moon. I went to fetch water in the foggy light of the coming dawn. I lamented another evening lost to visions of dark birds soaring the humid Louisiana sky and colorless buffalo emerging from the swollen waters of the Mississippi. Once again, the sunlight hours would be lost to straddling the ghosts of the night against the lively creatures of the day.

 

Byrdie Walker is my name. When I was born I was given another name, but that name is long gone and no longer spoken. I came into this world, born from the womb of a stranger, my umbilical cord hung from a tree, trailing blood onto the soil of the great Sioux nation. My father’s name is Antoine Aloysius Walker…or was. He left the Sioux nation and the snows of the Dakota territories, toting his little girl in a rawhide cradleboard, my chapped face hid behind a bison flap, my little body cushioned with moss in preparation for the journey. In my father’s other arm, he clutched our few belongings. Antoine had been a free man briefly, but all that changed upon our return to Orleans parish. You see, a negro never knows where his freedom lies. And that has always been my father’s destiny. Out of the chains of one and into the chains of another, a sad melody in refrain.

“Sometimes I’m up, and sometimes I’m down,
coming for to carry me home.”

Upon my father’s return to New Orleans, his debt was purchased by a man named Carson Cornelius Mallory; a debt that once again enslaved him, only this time as Mallory’s property. When Mallory enlisted, early on, in the Confederate Army, he brought my father with him, as both his servant on and off the battlefield. Master Mallory valued my father greatly, my father having been a marvel with guns and a magician with horses. Master Mallory died in battle, just outside Richmond, Virginia, on the same field where my father more than likely perished – the tragedy occurring on a brisk autumn morning, their blood spilling onto the soil of Lincoln’s republic. My father’s body was never found, yet I believe myself to be an orphan, my mother’s Cheyenne soul having been relinquished to the sky long ago, my father’s soul probably having sought freedom in the most likely place – heaven.

Many folks thought me to be split in two and searched for my seam, believing the seam to connect the Cheyenne with the negro; as if I had been sewn together like a voodoo doll. Perhaps there is a seam somewhere here within me, perhaps it’s the seam that connects me with the ghost of my Cheyenne self. My father taught me the Lakota tongue, but bade me to never speak it publicly. Sadly, I sent the Lakota tongue adrift, onto an ocean of silence. Perhaps, one day I can retrieve those words from their vacant place. Perhaps then I will become whole again and the seam will vanish like a scar that has been blessed by the passing of time.

“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

I live amongst the Mallory family and spend much of my time in the main house, attending to Sarah Mallory. Sarah has no siblings and, due to the war, no father, either. As you can imagine, we have much in common. I act as her maidservant and am her companion in all things discovered and undiscovered; I tutor her in reading and writing, the gathering of botanicals and insects, and the harboring of some rather intriguing secrets.

At night, I leave my small room off the shed and head in the direction of Rue Basin, just inland from the French Quarter. It is there that I enter a meeting house, located at the back of a crumbled alley. The meeting house is hidden behind a much larger building, whose dark balustrades contrast the pink tone of the building. The building is hauntingly beautiful when on rare mornings, I leave just as the sun is peeking out from the blanket of night. It is then that the building seems to have a life of its own, breathing like an ember that is mostly ash, trying to hold on to the last of its flame.

Many folks gather here, usually for help in love or money. It is here that I call upon the spirits. My visions come in one of two ways: the first being singing; hymns of spirit and surrender propel me into another world; the other way I can call upon the spirits, is quite simple, it is when I lay down my head. When I sing, the premonitions rise from me, like steam from a cauldron. Sometimes there is so much steam I can no longer make out the images that have come to me.

There are other diviners here, some with snakes, some with potions, many chant, and many sing. The broken walls are lined with candles, botanicals, images of Saints, and ribbons of every color. The scent of licorice rises from the absinthe, others imbibe rum. It is my habit to carry a satchel of spanish moss here, as it connects me to my unspoken Sioux name, moss having cushioned my first life’s journey.

On many a night here, I have tried to call upon my father’s spirit, but it does not answer me. Perhaps he is taking the slow journey to the sky. My father was a charming and clever man. His love for me was as thick as honey and could not be washed away. His life took him on several odd sojourns, one of those being the creation of me. He had fallen in love with a Cheyenne woman who had been kidnapped by the neighboring Sioux, due to a lost wager. My father tracked the small band of Indians that had abducted his love until he found them fishing in a canyon at the mouth of a river, hidden by the shadows of the Black Hills. After an initial confrontation, the abductors welcomed him, my father having impressed them with his skills with their horses. He and my mother eventually joined a larger camp and lived amongst the Sioux for a number of seasons until the event of my birth, and my mother’s subsequent passing. At that moment in time, my father was rejected by the Sioux and spurned away. He was then left to trudge the endless horizons of the Dakota territories, eventually returning to the south. My father, whether by destiny or by action, never could take the well-traveled road and soar towards his future, directly, as the crow flies. A more apt description would be that he leapt towards his future as the cricket hops, sideways, up on high, and forwards, making music all the way.

“Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

Once back in New Orleans, Cornelious Mallory bought my father’s debt , as I had mentioned before, but indeed kept adding on to that debt, at which point it seemed that my father would never be free of his obligations. My work in the house was never accounted for and my father was charged for my food and room. This angered my father to no end, but he was greatly relieved that as a consequence to my work, I had learned to read and write. 

My father had freedom coursing through his bones. When he would ride a horse, he would ride free of saddle and reins, two animals connected by instinct and grace. His mind sought the open vista of the sky when he was in the wild. He listened to the winds for solace and could find rhythm in the pelting of the rain. My father greatly wanted to put an end to this debt. When he traded some horses to the great financial benefit of Master Mallory, he was convinced that he was finally free. Yet Master Mallory would not release him. He just kept adding to the debt.

While many may call me Byrdie, there are others that call me the Oracle. How strange to take on so many names in what has been a short life so far. Sometimes I wonder who I truly am. Did I lose myself on the plains of the Dakota territories? A negro Indian housed in buckskin, allowing her mind to forever wander, searching the rolling clouds for silhouettes to speak to me? Am I the girl living in Orleans Parish, dressed in tailored cotton, reading books and almanacs; sophistication trumping my wild blood? Am I the Oracle? A girl who dare not touch folk’s belongings, due to the nakedness of the spirit emanating from them, causing visions of tragedy and enchantment?

 

April, 1862
Today at the height of the heat, a storm came thundering over the delta. I had been collecting moss off the oaks to help Sarah shake a chill, when, running to take refuge from the storm, I saw from the corner of my eye, a beast shifting amongst the magnolias. When I realized the beast was indeed bigger than a hound and as white as George Washington’s hair, I knew that the visions of the night had entered the daylight hours, an indication that the something was about to happen.

“I looked over Jordan, and what did I see coming for to carry me home?”

I dreamt a herd of white buffalo appeared at the edge of the flooded city. Their arrival was as silent and as gentle as a Dakota snowfall, a flurry of beasts marching slowly in my direction. Just above, hovering against a pale green sky, milky storm clouds did slowly unravel, not unlike the swirling, milky veil suspended in a glass of absinthe…

I returned to the shed, still soaked from the storm, my dress wet and clinging, the shrinking cloth almost strangling me. I lay my head down and my weariness took over, my eyes rolled closed and the visions came immediately. The buffalo were climbing up over the shoulders of town, their hides dripping, their hooves soiled with mud. In the distance, a beautiful sailing ship could be seen; graceful and deliberate in its advance up the river, with dark blue, billowing sails. The ship carried but one person on board its shiny deck; a faceless man, a man that dare not reveal himself.

I thought that Mr. Lincoln would never invade New Orleans, however, it seems this is exactly what is happening. His army took siege of the city just a few days ago, arriving in large flotillas. At times the boats were not even visible due to the smoke of firing cannons and the endless bales of cotton being set fire by the citizenry; cotton being money and money being something the confederates weren’t going to give the union for free. I now understand that the white buffalo were union soldiers. The moment that I thought I had glimpsed a buffalo by the magnolias, I knew a calamity was impending, I knew to look away, just in time…

June 1862 

Once the siege was fulfilled, our world changed. We avoided the activities of the soldiers that had stampeded the city. We kept mainly to the house and the women or young girls, such as Sarah, were forbidden to leave the property. We had plenty of food, as well as a garden, so did not suffer as some of the other folks did. 

Oddly, my delta dreams continued. They would begin with the white buffalo climbing the embankments, then, the phantom boat would appear, hovering over the river, with the faceless man on deck. In the second dream after the siege, the boat once again appeared, floating aimlessly. It no longer pushed forward with determination, but now the boat seemed to be rudderless and lost. It was then that the boat slowly began to float backward, sailing down the Mississippi, like a cotton spinning wheel, spiraling backwards, a truly unnatural vision.

 

Each night, the dreams and the man took me backwards, slowly gliding, further away, forever moving. My sense of balance and time began to trouble me; I couldn’t feel the ground beneath me. Unanchored I was, as if the wind could just blow me in a gust. The faceless man continued, sailing in reverse. Villages and port cities would appear in the background, barely visible through a haze, with a hinting at activities: docks being loaded, boats sailing past, none of which seemed to distract the man, never wavering from his seeming focus on his environment, aboard that boat, never turning his head. This continued into the gulf of Mexico, up the Florida coast, past war ships, fishermen and even the occasional bather. The sails no longer graceful, no longer billowing, took on wind, backwards, awkward in their movement. The man remained, motionless, never turning to face me. This went on for weeks, until the boat eventually stopped in a harbor, which appeared to be mid coast, perhaps Virginia. 

‘I’ll cut a hole and pull you through. coming for to carry me home.”

I wanted to lay my head down as often as possible, in order to continue this strange, backwards journey. I went to the meeting house every 2nd day. There, I would ignore those approaching me for guidance, would wrap my arms around myself and begin to hum and sway and surrender myself to the visions.

It was on one of these nights, while singing, that, to my great surprise, I discovered that the man on the ship was dressed in a blue uniform. Somehow, in the vision, I felt as if I was able to come closer to the man, I now felt as if I was only a few feet away; walking directly behind him, close enough so that I could see that he was a union soldier.

The man would face me, though his features were never discernible. In my visions, I was nervous because the man was a union soldier. I felt as if I was tip toeing behind him, following him through union barracks and down endless burning roads. It was around this time that the man was no longer wearing union blues, but instead patched pants and an ill fitted coat. The roads were ablaze with color, the fall leaves vibrant and alive, peeking through the clouds of grey smoke.

After what seemed like hours, the man reached a battlefield. There were hundreds if not thousands of men lying in the grass; faces frozen in varying expressions of peace and horror; some gazing at the sky, others curled up like babies. The man, limping slightly, kneeled in the grass and, with great labor, lay gently down and closed his eyes. Next to his outstretched right hand, lay a pistol.

The next night when I lay my head down, I felt a great surge of sadness. I believed that the dreams were over as I had witnessed the death of the stranger. I had developed a great fondness for him, longed to experience his presence, and felt a great sense of loss.

Almost immediately I found myself on the same battlefield, watching as the motionless man just lay there, flies congregating around a head wound. I watched him tenderly for quite a while, when the man suddenly arose – just as there was a great explosion. He continued backward until he reached a poor soul that was lying in the field. At closer look, that soul was none other than Mr. Carson Cornelious Mallory; his crumpled body drained of all life. The man lifted Mallory’s feet and did drag him to the edge of the field whereupon he placed the body behind a horse.

You can imagine my confusion at these images, when, suddenly the man flicked his head quickly to the left and gazed directly in my eyes, at which point he did reveal himself! This mysterious man was my beloved father, Antoine Aloysius Walker! At that moment, he was pointing a pistol at the head of Master Mallory, Master Mallory being convulsed in fear, hidden behind his horse at the edge of the battlefield. Suddenly, I heard a thud, after which a shot rang out.

“The brightest day that I can say, coming for to carry me home.”

My father, in his brilliance and defiance, had murdered his master and placed him on a battlefield already plagued with death, thereby avoiding any possibility of suspicion about Master Mallory’s demise. Weren’t they all murdered anyway? Whether in the name of the Republic? Whether in the name of the confederate states? For or against slavery?

Antoine Aloysius Walker must of then meandered his way north, to the union encampments thereby being accepted into the union army. My father found his freedom, not via a slow sojourn back into the sky, back into the heaven from whence he came, but instead, found his freedom another way, in the way of the world he lived in. 

No longer were albino buffalos or phantom ships in my visions. My dreams returned to innocent stories of far off lands, animals and insects, fantasies of future greatness, and even at times hinted at the mystery that was my mother. However, I await the return of the man in blue, in my dreams or otherwise and I no longer refer to myself as an orphan. 

 

The End

Copyright © 2009 Meike Kopp, All Rights reserved.