Thursday, October 29, 2009

There's No Goodbye - October Prelude


Welcome to my entry for Petit Fours and Hot Tamales October Treasure Hunt! I feel honored to have been assigned Halloween. The story that follows is a pre-quel to my current work in progress, There's No Goodbye. It's about a magical florist who must save the life of a doomed soul and it begins on Christmas Eve one year from the story you are about to read. Enjoy and I'd love to read your comments as I'm always looking for feedback!


The bottle of Jameson picked a bad moment to bang against the plastic container in the bottom of Marchand’s knapsack. She stopped and ducked into the doorway of a mausoleum, her fingers deftly wedging the whiskey bottle into place again. She crouched lower as a flashlight played out in a faint arc in the Jewish section, illuminating the dull red of shedding leaves. For October the night was slightly warm, but Marchand wore a black sweater to blend into the shadows and was thankful for the warmth against the chill she felt coming from inside her body. The guard patrolled in a pattern, allowing Marchand a slim belief that she’d complete her mission before he caught her, but not if the bottle that had cost her a day’s tips gave her away. Atlanta was not New Orleans; she couldn’t pay a guard to look the other way for a bridal ancestor ritual.

Marchand timed her advance through Oakland with the clacking of the Marta trains running every thirteen minutes along the northwest perimeter of the cemetery. She knew exactly how many steps it would take from each stopping point to get her across the original six acres and onto the back side of Oakland where the McCarty plot faced the old Fulton Bag and Cotton Mill. This deliberateness, the precision of her plans, had not come as easily to Marchand as she would have wished. But a skill acquired in counter to the natural order of her personality had given her spells a resonance that increased their potency.

Brick walkways, humped and misshapen by a century of rain, were laid out in a tidy grid. Moving quickly, she turned left at the juncture of four paths. At the highest point in the cemetery the Austell plot rose up in a solid brown mass; huge blocks forming the base with Gothic arches and spires rising up into the sky. Marchand crouched against the iron gate and waited; cold pinpricks rose up on her back from the metal pressing through her sweater. From this vantage point she could see the lights from the taqueria just across Memorial Drive and the slight wind carried the heavy scent of cooking oil. In the thirteen minutes she waited the sound of cars traveling down I-20 rose in a distant swell before the trains drowned them out again. Oakland had once stood out in the country, but the thick brick walls rimming in the forty-five acres now provided a bulwark against urban encroachment instead of errant cattle. Inside the cemetery the Victorian world, with its heavy symbology and efflorescence of ritual mourning and devotion, held its power in spite of the industrial complexes and light pollution pushing in on all sides.

Marchand dashed from her spot at the sound of the approaching train and headed down the final path to her destination. The contents of her knapsack remained silent and complicit.


*******

The McCarty’s final resting place was a few plots away from the northern boundary of Oakland Cemetery and fell under the shadow of a massive column dedicated to Governor Joseph Brown. Topping the column was the Archangel Gabriel himself, trumpet raised to his lips, wings outstretched, ready for all eternity to blow in the apocalypse. In twelve hours, Marchand would be a McCarty, which seemed apocalyptical enough. She thought of Gabriel giving the news to Mary of her favor with God, answering Mary’s wavering voice, her questions.

Then Mary said to the angel, How shall this be, since I do not know a man?

And the angel answered and said to her, The Holy Spirit shall come on you, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow you. For with God nothing shall be impossible.

For every penance Marchand could think of, the idea of entering into a barren marriage seemed too great a crime. She made the sign of the cross in the air. If Mary could make it work, she could as well.

Marchard stepped up onto the marble carriage step leading to the plot. She’d mentally rehearsed the ritual, making adjustments to suit graves that were in the ground instead of raised as they were back home. The ritual she was going to perform was as old as time, a remnant from an age of magic few could still claim. A pull of power flowed up into her sternum. She could feel Eulalie’s fingertips radiating circles out onto her temples.

Eulalie. The missing of Eulalie sliced through her. In her childhood Marchand often listened at Eulalie’s private office door as she advised her clients. She’d delved through cracks and around columns until she knew the instructions as well as anyone living, but never did she think she’d be the one practicing the rite herself. Or that she would be practicing it without Eulalie to advise her.

Marchand Boniquet had been born to be lonely. Marriage was not in her birth chart. Eulalie had calculated a new chart every year, hoping to find her own mathematical error, but the stars had never been aligned. Marchand could only imagine that her grandmother, powerful as she was, re-arranged them herself once she ascended.

God, as usual, had the last laugh at the meddling of a cranky old woman. Her marriage was a ritual incited to produce nothing so much as an illusion. Were it not for a good cause, she’d worry that the hand of God would smite her on the spot.

Sham or not, however, Marchand did not cut corners when it came to ritual. She knelt in the exact middle of the family plot, brushing aside leaves fallen from a crepe myrtle to reveal the bare ground, then flipped open the lid of her knapsack. She slipped out the ancient linen cloth, the lace edging nearly yellow, placing it on the ground with care. Rows of initials embroidered in white on white ran down each side and, with fingers shaking in memory, she touched Eulalie’s flourished E and P. The cloth belonged to the Boniquet family and her mother’s initials were there, but Marchand did not trace them. Her father was a typical Boniquet male, having turned her mother to disenchantment and misery in their short lives. Her own initials would be added at the next new moon, but tonight only the fluorescent lights from the Marta station lit up the cloth.

The eggplant she pulled from the sack was without flaw, skin deepest purple and shiny as it nestled onto the middle of the cloth. The eggplant, meant to represent her own uterus, made Marchand gag as she placed it on the cloth. The Boniquet family was meant to die out with her. She pulled out the plastic container and removed the four objects nestled in paper. Orienting herself for true north, Marchand pulled out the sixteen-penny nail and held it in the palm of her hand for a moment to feel the weight of the metal before plunging it into the eggplant with the head pointing north. The requirement of earth was the element of metal – something to give strength for the long haul of marriage.

She moved to face south, then removed a long incense taper, hand-made from a recipe she carried in her memory having left Eulalie’s spell book behind in New Orleans. Only the possessions that would fit in her duffle and not be subject to theft from the other refugees had come onto the bus with her. With fingers steadied by her faith in her magic, she struck a match against a grave marker and lit the taper. The small red tip of the incense released a trickle of cedar-scented smoke; the line running straight and true for four inches before it broke into wispy patterns. Fire. Engine of passion. She stared into the burning incense. Her passion would play out in her work.

West came next and to invoke water she’d chosen the small pink sea shell she’d carried with her from home, remnant of a trip to Gulf Shores with Eulalie. The shell curled around on itself forming a small maze pointing up into the sky. She’d glued it to a small twig and the wood went into the eggplant with some force; anchoring her wishes for her married life to flow and ebb as the tide.

The last object required the greatest care, both in creation and in placement. East was the domain of air, and air was the primal life force. In six months, perhaps less, she would be a widow. As she held her offering to air up against the dark sky, Marchand felt as if she were back home, on Canal Street, close enough to water to feel the land sway. Affixed to a long florist’s pin was a bright yellow butterfly she’d managed to catch in the yard, out of place against the dying beds of autumn. Eulalie, always firm in her rules, had not allowed her clients to substitute silk butterflies, “Don’t you think God can recognize one of his own? Marriage will require sacrifice, and often it’s beauty that gets tossed along the way.” She pushed the pin into the eggplant, the tip of the needle easily piercing the shiny flesh. She rocked back on her heels and stared at her creation.

Four Objects. Four Elements. Four Directions.

The divine number, twelve, was met. She had two last things to do to complete her work. She grabbed the bottle of whiskey out of the bottom of the knapsack, quickly cutting through the seal and twisting off the top. She walked the entire perimeter of the plot, pouring the liquid in a steady stream, being careful to use exactly enough to cover every inch of the outline of the entire plot. At the very back, where the family crypt was sealed firmly shut, she poured the remainder of the bottle. She then repeated the entire process with a quart of goat’s milk. When both containers were empty at her feet, Marchand dropped to her knees at the door of the crypt and bowed her head.

God, Goddess, Everything That Is, I ask that you grant me a fruitful and happy marriage. I join this family with honor, bearing whatever talents and gifts you have given me, and ask only that I be accepted and allowed to share them.

She waited, for what Marchand was not sure. In her experience no great crack of thunder would come, no ready acknowledgement that the universe had heard her. Whatever God, Goddess, Everything had in store for her was a mystery. When her knees could not bear her weight any longer and the sound of the Marta train rattled down the tracks, Marchand rose, placed the eggplant with its adornments in the door of the crypt, carefully folded up with earth-dampened cloth, and then tucked it back into her knapsack. She left the whiskey bottle and the milk carton at the base of Gabriel’s column.

May you be appeased for a time.

********


A church pew hard and uncomfortable under her, the back of her calves rubbing against the cold leather of the kneeling board tucked under the pew, the air rent by loud blasts from a trumpet. The trumpeter materializes – his cheeks puffing and the sound hanging in the air like ribbons from a pennant, his black face shinning with sweat from the effort of his notes. Her hands clasped in her lap, she hears the notes, understands the call is to something evil, she looses her fingers, begins to draw the protective sigil in the air. Spell unfinished, her right hand no longer has fingers as it rises up to the call of the trumpet, the back of her hand grows scaly, revulsion rises up in her throat, her fingers web together, black eyes open where her knuckles should be, the notes crest, slow, her arms begin to move, syncopated, beyond her control. Her arm turns, a small forked tongue flickers out, testing the air, the black eyes do not blink. The trumpet grows softer, enticing, the man blowing seductively, his eyes closed. Ridges of new bone rise out of the sides of the flesh that used to be her hand as the hooded cobra at the end of her arm stares into her face . . .

Violent shudders wracked Marchand as she struggled to rise to the surface of the living world. Her room was still dark, the only sounds her breath and the dripping leaves outside. Shadowed shapes rimmed her bed, square and resolute as the mausoleums she’d slouched amongst the previous night.

Only a dream. Only a dream.

Under the sheets Marchand could feel the fingers of her right hand as they flexed and moved. She pulled her hands out from the covers, holding them up to her face and turning them around to view every familiar line and wrinkle. Her fingers worked in unison, reflexively finishing the protective sign she had failed to make in her dream.

The waking world moved into her head, sense returning, the dream slipping away. A horror to worry over as time allowed.

Today she was a bride.

Craig and Russell had seen to every detail, but Marchand still had to finish packing her belongings and get ready.

She pushed herself out of bed, climbing around the boxes lining every spare inch of space in her room, and nearly ran to make coffee strong enough to get her through the day.

********
Marchand debated with herself, alone in the bride’s room, the hovering church lady having been sent on an errand of little importance. The church lady was a fan of brides and seemed rather confused at her lack of attendants and even greater lack of attention to the details.

No civil service for her, Craig needed their wedding to be real and that meant church, dress, flowers, honored guests. She could only imagine what her side of the church must look like. At least the bar where she’d cocktailed was closed this early in the day, perhaps she’d have a minor contingent of drunks to stand up for her.


Her veil was fine lace and mellowed to a lovely color the shade of an expensive taper candle. Russell had produced both the dress and the veil, borrowed from one relative or another. Begged or bought, they suited her slim frame and dark hair and eyes. The veil helped to disguise the fact that she had the hair of a Marine, cropped as it was into close waves against her scalp. The spell she’d put upon herself, appearing indistinct to anyone who looked at her for more than a second, seemed ill-suited to a bride. False as she was in this undertaking, she didn’t want their guests to find it odd when they could not describe Craig’s mysterious new wife. She could break the spell, but the dream of the cobra had haunted her entire day, making her want to disappear even further into the veil.

The soft knock at the door gave her no time to whisper the words and make the signs, giving the decision entirely to the Goddess. Hidden she’d remain, her features fuzzy, her smile bland.

“Come in,” she called out, trying to at least inject a small amount of cheer into her voice.

The head peering around the edge of the door was gray with curls tightly styled into rows against the dainty skull. “May I come in dear? I’d like to look at you before you walk down the aisle.”

“Of course, Mrs. McCarty, please come in.” Marchand backed away from the mirror and tried to settle a smile on her face. How such a diminutive woman had produced a bear of a man like Craig, Marchand could not comprehend. Yet, small as she was, Criag’s mother was a fixed chamber, controlling the rise and fall of her family as a lock controls tidal water.

“You look lovely, Marchand. It’s a shame, though, that my dress did not suit, it would have looked beautiful on you.” Mrs. McCarty fixed her blue eyes on Marchand, trying to measure her for flow and ebb, but the spell held and the old woman was driven to look elsewhere in the room, her brows coming together in confusion.

“It’s rather too bad I have seven inches in height, your dress was indeed lovely and I would have felt beautiful in it.” She had no interest in antagonizing her soon to be mother-in-law. Marchand knew what Mrs. McCarty did not. Her son had mere months before he slipped away from her. Russell had shot Craig up with enough steroids to bulk up two ninety-pound weaklings just to get him through the ceremony.

“Well, dear, dress or not, I’m so glad Craig is finally getting married.” She smiled, the relief tipping the corners of her mouth into more of a smile than the worry lines edging her face would allow for. “I always thought he’d find the right girl, but I just never imagined he’d make it to a sight past fifty.”

Marchand felt an uncharacteristic tenderness she had thought gone with Eulalie. Mrs. McCarty would never need to know the truth about her son. She’d doubted Craig’s plan, doubted the fact that his mother did not at least guess the truth about Craig and Russell, but he’d been right. She was without the first clue.

“Well, he’s found the right girl, now, Mrs. McCarty. I’ll try to make him very happy.” For the time he has left, I’ll be the perfectly complicit bride.

“Thank you Marchand, I’m sure you will. It all seems rather sudden and I’m still trying to get used to the idea, of course. I just haven’t heard of such fast weddings when there wasn’t a little, um, situation to be covered up. You know what I mean, dear?”

Underneath her bouquet, Marchand’s hands made the sign for tact. “If you’re asking me if I’m pregnant, Mrs. McCarty, the answer is no.”

“Well, alright then. Goodness knows I’m too old for grandchildren, why Craig has a nephew who is older than you are!”

Mrs. McCarty stayed for a moment longer, then rushed away in a small wake as the church lady returned to announce the beginning of the ceremony. Marchand gripped her bouquet with her right hand, relieved to find her fingers had not been replaced with scales.

********

The pen in her hand felt too smooth, the metal cool, the barrel hard. Craig had handed it to her, his smile faint and his own hand trembling uncontrollably. He and Russell had chosen a morning wedding, followed by a lovely brunch at their restaurant, knowing that Craig would not make it through a longer day. With the festivities over and the day drawing to a close the toll was beginning to show, on all of them.

“Marchand, this is where you sign.” Craig pointed, his thick index finger nearly obscuring the line where she needed to sign. When she continued to hesitate, he reached out and tipped up her chin, his eyes searching her face. Russell had trimmed Craig’s beard into a semblance of order and, combined with his flowing hair, he looked like Walt Whitman. He smiled at her, nodding his head. “I know. It’s hard. You are not signing my death warrant. It’s a living will and a Do Not Resuscitate, the warrant was issued long ago.”

A single tear dropped from her eye and fell onto the paper. Marchand could not say she’d never felt more alone, that feeling being reserved for the moment when Eulalie’s hand had slipped from hers and she’d clawed to grasp her grandmother back from Katrina’s flood waters, but the sign of death was already on Craig. A black fuzzy outline like the wing of a crow. “I’m okay. I’ll sign it.”

The lawyer who had come with papers, a long time friend of Russell and Craig, quickly affixed the notary stamp as if Marchand might renege and snatch the documents back from him. He was the type of gay man who saw women as breeders and therefore beneath his interest. His frown indicated his hearty disapproval of the whole plan.

As if her thoughts had given rise to his voice, the lawyer turned to Russell, slumped and spent in an arm chair next to the front window, and said, “I suppose now we sign over assets to her?”

Russell looked up from his study of the ruby leaves dropping every few minutes from the dogwood tree in the front yard. “Yes, John, we’ve already gone over this. Please have Marchand sign the papers for ownership of the flower shop. Lord knows, she deserves that at the very least for putting up with our little charade.”

Marchand could feel Craig bristle, the fight rising up in him and then hissing out as if he’d been a punctured tire. His voice when he spoke was deep and filled with unshed tears. “I’m sorry, Russell, this is the only way. I love you, and I hate that I’m leaving you, but it’s too late to change.”

Russell’s skin, the color of a weak café au lait, clearly showed the two spots of pink that rose up in his cheeks. “I know. You can’t tell your mother after all these years that we share more than a restaurant and I can’t risk her trying to keep you alive. It’s impossible.” He looked away from them, back out into the gathering darkness, “And I am thankful, Marchand.”

“I know, Russell.” She turned back to the lawyer, taking the papers he held out and placing them flat on the table. With fast strokes she affixed her name, sealing all of their fates and ensuring a future for herself where she swore her magic would only be used to heal the kind of heartache that pulsed through the room like a flood of polluted water.


Contest Question: Oakland Cemetery is located in the heart of Atlanta and is open daily for contemplative walks. It's a beautiful place. In my story the events of Hurricane Kartina are bookended with the tornado that ripped through Oakland in March of 2008.

While Marchand is in Oakland she uses a vegetable as part of an ancestor ritual. What vegetable does she use?

6 comments:

Ana Aragón said...

Wow. What a great beginning. I cannot wait to read the rest!

Lovely!

Ana

Tami Brothers said...

I agree! This is great, Michelle!

I can only imagine what you have in mind for her in your story.

Well done.

Tami

Troop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle said...

Thanks! I love this character and can't wait for everyone to see what she has to go through to save Craig's doomed soul and find her own true love! (hint, Craig does have a nephew . . .)

Nicki Salcedo said...

I'm been waiting so patiently and it was totally worth the wait. You have to keep this. No matter what! Loved it. Your true voice. I like the close 3rd by the way. :) From your CP!

Carol Burnside said...

Well done! Doesn't it feel great to get back to your writing?