White to the Bone
Image by Hanna Bechtle
Of course, I didn't recognize my paradise for what it was until the streets were ablaze. The worst thing was that, this time, the city council didn't bother to give us a warning notice before demolition day arrived in all its glory. Even loan sharks have the courtesy of sending their bat boys to break you a few bones when you're late for a payment, but fate didn't grant us the same courtesy.
That is, unless you consider snow a bad omen.
It all happened a day like today. Not that our beloved city gets to see much snow, but that day was white like the wet dream of a cocaine addict. The clouds had vomited all around, leaving its insides spread around the streets like a coating of crystallized white cotton candy.
Back then, I still payed the bills with a normal job. I admit that working endless shifts at the ER might not be everybody's definitions of normal, but compared to my wacky line of work these days, it feels as if it was as ordinary as flipping burgers. That day was a slow day at the hospital, so, Alonso, the head nurse, and I keep making bets about who's going to have to deal with the most awkward family meal in the coming days.
Then our next customer comes through the swinging doors of the back entrance. Quick triage: Head bruise indicating heavy subdural hematomas. Injury on the torso's right side suggesting right thoracic trauma and pierced lungs. The paramedic chimes in to add that the patient's vertebrae have been crushed to fine grains of sand. Quick triage: The patient looks like a deer ripped apart by the front wheels of a SUV.
Nobody tells me her name. A glimpse of the left arm lying out of the stretcher is enough. Our wedding ring shines emerald green under the fluorescent lighting. Her hand is white as snow. White as mausoleums. Pure and immaculate as the gauzes she'd soak with her blood in a just matter of seconds.
What can I say? Sophia always would take me places. That day she'd just tripped headlong into hell and dragged a big chunk of me with her.
What remained wasn't good. What remained was bitter, angry and cracked. You know what they say: "Blessed are the cracked for they let in the light". Just don't get the wrong idea here. When I use the word "light," don"t think of a picturesque lighthouse guiding boats to safety through the mist, but more of a guy with a mask holding a blowtorch and a pair of pliers in a dark basement.
Anyhow, the short story is that ever since that night, when you wake me up at two after midnight on a snowy day, it gets me foaming. More explicitly, foaming like a pack of rabid dogs with iron jaws.
Tonight, the call comes, as is to be expected, from a graveyard. There's something the crescent city has in spades and that is cemeteries. Fancy European-style beauties, filled with row after row of stone and plaster tombs offering you all the comforts you may require for an eternal sleep.
In winter, besides their quota of teary-eyed family members, they get a surprising amount of voodoo practitioners that come to light some candles to Baron Samedi, or some other Voodoo patron, after getting all drunk on eggnog.
It"s hard to blame them, though. The hurricane left quite a few families broken, and never is this more evident than when there’s an empty chair at your table during Christmas.
See? The thing is that these people already have their own doctors. They don't need me. They have their own mystic, mumbo-jumbo gurus, who prescribe them what brand of love oil to buy, how to prevent cancer by folding socks in a certain manner and, of course, how to make sure that their loved ones spend the "Season to be jolly" peacefully wrapped up in a sturdy pine box. In most cases, these Houngans and those Mambos, their priests and priestesses, are true devout practitioners of a perfectly respectable religion, but a few are hustlers trying to make a dime on the desperate.
Sometimes, you even run into a proper medium that can act as a service of telegraphy with the other side. They'll deliver messages from dead husbands to grieving widows, and for a special fee they might even allow you chat real time with your grandma.
So, what do they need me for then?
Every once and then, things get messy. Hungry ghosts overstay and start eating your cheese and crackers. At those times, they need somebody to kindly show them the exit. Sometimes, even with an old-fashioned beat down. That's what they have my card for.
When I get there, the accident is worse than I could have imagined. I'm expecting to find a crying widow and a Houngan high on a bad trip, but instead, it's a true "tomb wreck."
By "tomb wreck," I mean one of the best families of the city, the Duvalls, owners of half of the restaurants in Canal Street, all dressed for mourning and holding funeral-white flowers in their hands.
By "tomb wreck," I mean seeing Madame Baptiste, the best occult professional of the city, equipped with some heavy artillery: a metal baby coffin, crucifix-shaped nails and a pack of blood bags taken from the transfusion unit tied up with a cloth ribbon.
And by "tomb wreck," what I really mean is seeing Sarah, Madame Baptiste's medium of choice chained up to one of the columns within the Duvall family mausoleum, screaming in pain and looking at me with her intense, bloodshot, blue eyes.
Sarah isn't even your regular medium. She's a Cheval Sacrée, a sacred horse. Sacred horses are the closest you can get to luxury sports cars in the world of mediums. They're the Olympic athletes in the world competition for opening your brain to emanations from the other side. Most of the times, mediums fake the actual possessions. Ghosts don't usually have the drive or intensity to take over a body that isn't theirs.
With a Cheval it's different. Since their childhood raised in the depths of the Bayou, they're taught to adopt others' thoughts as if they were their own. Their education takes place between tombstones and charnel houses so they learn to accept the dead as their friends and lovers.
They offer their hands, throats and eyes to the dead for their enjoyment. They can take them for a spin, but like with any car dealer they have to return the car unblemished. This doesn't seem to be the case this time. That’s why Madame Baptiste has called me.
"It's bad," Madame Baptiste whispers to me when I'm about to enter the mausoleum.
Sarah looks at me with her sunken eyes. Her skinny face is soaked with feverish sweating. Her dirty blonde hair falls off to the side, like a curtain that barely lets light in, during a hangover morning.
It's rather obvious that the dress she's wearing isn't hers. Just another piece of the alchemical gear to lend her skin to a particular deceased. Half transistor to communicate the bodiless world with our own, half smelly cloth to allow the hound to track its prey.
Quick triage: Judging the situation on the purely physiological symptoms, she seems to be pretty much OK.
In the cold intimacy of the mausoleum, she speaks with a broken and raspy voice. She calls me with a name that's not mine. She screams and yells blasphemies in a way that would make a nun blush.
Quick triage: Judging the situation on anything else, this looks as good as a three-lane accident involving multiple collisions. Which is to say, that even though there might be a certain raw beauty in the patterns of blood, grease, gas and wheel tracks drawn by crashing cars, you definitely don't want to be part of that canvas.
Confirmation of my diagnosis comes when she lashes at me trying to pull out my eyes. Suddenly, I'm on the floor with a scratch on my right cheek that burns like the kiss of a cigarette. I notice my fresh blood dripping on the moldy floor of the dusty chamber around us. Her ghoulish and delirious laughter of ecstasy cracks in my ears while she tries to jump over me. Luckily the chain tied to her ankle prevents it.
I take my hand to my face, pulling back its drench in a scarlet map. Pain is always the best stimulant to end a hangover. As far as I'm concerned this monster with the body of a woman has her days numbered. Panting with rage, I go out to the graveyard wearing an unfriendly face.
Some of those present let out gasps of shock. I couldn't care less. I'm ready to burn the family mausoleum down with a kerosene barrel (with all of them inside) if needed.
To be fair, it doesn't help that it's snowing.
I return from the car with a portable wax cylinder phonograph under my arm. The Duvalls look at me at loss, trying to gauge what's the old thing for. I'd rather not tell them, and instead I avoid their stares and gesture for Madame Baptiste to accompany me into the crypt.
When we enter, the woman behind Sarah's eyes looks at the heavy metallic thing, but her poor, intangible brain can't quite grasp what it is. She mustn't be that old, after all, and phonographs went out of vogue in what, the late twenties?
Madame Baptiste knows what to do. It's not like it's the first time she sees me doing it, after all. She starts spinning the handle and the music comes out with a dusty vibe to it. Sarah's tenant looks at us bewildered. She tries to recognize the melody, but fails.
The wax cylinder contains a blues piece recorded when the city was still young and had just fallen under the spell of the travelling musicians. A voluptuous female voice comes out of the speaker crafting a deliciously moody atmosphere.
Without allowing the ghost time to react, I extend a gloved hand to grab Sarah's. Then I gently pull her to my side so I can lock her free arm with mine.
The song coils around her ears enthralling her. We both start gently swinging ourselves to the beat of a band that isn't quite there. Every broken piano note is a drop of poisonous honey luring her deep into dancing.
I'm dancing with the soul of a ghost entrapped in Sarah's body but the night's just getting started.
Through the distorted wax, the singer opens her heart to us, weaving a sorrowful tale of a woman that begs her lover to return home after a long absence.
It's a haunting song, but that's not why I've brought it. It's also a key. A secret weapon. The proverbial white rabbit in my magician's hat.
The music has kept the memory young and new. Like a prized photo that has been encased in a frame. I close my eyes and feel the wooden boards of my old home under my naked feet. The warmth of Sophia's hand in mine. The taste of wine in my mouth.
And then it comes. A kiss so intense that will be forever etched in my lips. A thousand chrysanthemums blooming in my heart. I cling to that perfect memory for a second.
I wish I could make it last longer.
Sophia's death hits me with the strength of an atomic bomb. I let the sorrow devour me. I let it flow through my veins to the very tip of my fingers. I let it pass on to her, erasing everything in its wake.
I don't see it but I can feel the quivering and the shaking until Sarah, finally, collapses in my arms.
We both open our eyes at the same time. She blinks, adjusting her sight to the dim lighting. But it's enough to tell that this time it’s just her in her body. It's a good thing that ghosts aren't made of matter, I suppose, otherwise she'd be all covered in ashes.
I don’t stay to offer any sort of spiritual comfort. I collect my fee and leave Madame Baptiste to take care of the exhausted Sarah and provide any explanations that the Duvalls might demand. Their defunct relative, whoever she was, is lost forever. Disconnected and out of mystical reach for the centuries to come.
Shaking, I get into my car. I shiver in silence while I wait for the heating to start kicking in before leaving. Tears coalesce in my burning eyes, but I hold them off. And then, before I can start the engine, I catch a glimpse of Sophia, if only for a second. She gives me a smile, white as winter. White like the negative of her shadow in my chest when we danced together. A crisp, purifying smile, white to the bone.
Only then, unseen, hiding behind the condensed car windows, I let the tears run free.