City of the Dead – Novel Excerpt

new-orleans-cemetary

I don’t really know if this will make it into the finished manuscript or not, but I do like it, and if it gets cut, may find its way into a short story or another novel someday; Octavia may be a larger, more interesting character than the current space for her allows. Who knows? For now, hers is the story-excerpt for the month. I hope you enjoy.

Every two or three months, Octavia would visit the cemetery. New Orleans St. Louis Cemetary 2, to be precise. There were three of them now, all within a few blocks of each other near the French Quarter. A mixture of city settlers, dignitaries, jazz musicians, a voodoo queen, and some just plain folks – generations of them – all sleeping side by side through eternity.

“The City of the Dead” they called it. Because of the high water table and occasional flooding, no one could be buried in the ground, so the practical alternative was  building family vaults above ground, varying in height and breadth and numbers, but all lined up with paths in between like a strange cityscape in miniature. Some were painted, usually in pastel colors; others were whitewashed and glowed in the moonlight; some had a short wrought-iron fence that ran around a large family plot, while others had a thin strip of grass; some had flowers or shrubs, either planted directly in the ground or in pots.

Octavia liked it here. Even though many warned her about coming, especially alone, she found solace in visiting her relatives and ancestors, tending the graves. Well, grave actually, since there was only one long rectangle of cement that held her lineage. It was longer than it was tall, which gave her a wide horizontal surface on which to place her offerings when she came. The only people she ever encountered were others who were doing as she was, respectful and understanding, a sort of unspoken kinship of grief, wonder and devotion.

The one exception to the rule of not coming here at night was on All Souls’ eve. Everyone came out on this night of the year when it was believed the veil between the worlds was thinnest; a time of remembrance, of celebration, of community. On that night – the first of November – the City of the Dead was very much alive with the living. The cemetery glowed in the dark from hundreds of votive candles  placed on the tombs, casting long, slanting shadows and illuminating the faces of those paying tribute and tending the graves. There were flowers and food for honoring and sustenance, shots of rum or rye or sazerac, and maybe a few cigarettes, depending on the predilections of those entombed there.

Octavia always started out by kneeling by the tomb of her family, pressing her hands against the cool surface of the whitewashed cement, and silently saying the old prayers and greetings to the dead in French Creole. Then she would lay out her offerings: No less than a dozen votive candles, evenly spaced around the edge of the box-like tomb. She worked her rosary and said a Hail Mary with each candle lit. Then she set the vase of flowers from her garden, the cosmos and dahlias and snapdragons that held on late – this, especially for her grandmother, who had always loved her garden. It was still warm enough this time of year that there was always ample in bloom.

Octavia took a flask from the canvas bag she’d packed and brought to this night, along with a small shot glass. She carefully poured a small measure of rye and set the glass at one end of the arrangement. For Uncle Philippe, who had always been fond of his after-dinner drink by the fire, this time of year.

She set out a bowl of red beans and rice, a small plate of sliced sausages and tomatoes. A small bowl of late season plums and one with tangerines, a special favorite of her great-aunt Tilly, who had died just this last year at age ninety-eight. It was thought that the spirits on this night were hungry for some of their earthly favorites and it gave Octavia pleasure to be able to provide for them these small tokens of the lives they had enjoyed here on earth.

Octavia reached into the bag and brought out photographs of some of those buried here, placing them around on the tomb, securing them with the votive glasses, protecting them from the breeze that was starting to stir.

She placed several sprigs of rosemary from her garden in the middle of the tomb’s surface. For remembrance. Octavia smiled and stood up, looking at the finished makeshift altar. For her it glowed and hummed with the swirling memories of her childhood and of stories about her relatives that had come and gone before she was born. She felt a part of a stream of life that was as tangible as the flowing of the nearby Mississippi river. She crossed herself instinctively, with reverence.

She turned and looked at the rest of the cemetery. It had come alive with the twinkling of votive-candle lights and the movement of people and the soft cadence of voices that carried on the breeze; combinations of French, English, African and Arcadian dialects. There were traces of song and soft laughter. It reminded Octavia of Christmas. The chill of the tombs, the evening air, balanced with the warmth of the candle light, the warmth of the voices as people prayed out loud and told family stories to the children they brought with them. Octavia hoped that someday she would have a son or daughter that she could bring here, to teach the prayers and the predilections of their ancestors, to pass on the lineage and responsibility of honoring and celebrating those no longer present.

It never felt morbid to Octavia, though both her parents were still alive, and she wondered if it might be different for her, years from now. But she felt that even then, they would be somehow at home, protected and at peace here. She would help see to it, she thought to herself.