Bodies were everywhere—limp, bloated, tangled in bushes, trees, floating in water.
Men, women, and children bobbed in the muddy current, interspersed with upside-down Chevys, shredded trees, snapped power lines, and mangled street signs.
Rain added to the river’s rise. Hot, humid rain. Rain that tasted metallic and fell, like blades, pricking skin.
Marie was dry, parched. Awake inside her dream.
For weeks, she’d been having the same dream; she’d been trying to interpret it, break the horrific spell.
“Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink.” The phrase kept rewinding in her mind. Coleridge. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
“Not a drop to drink.” Just dead, infested waters.
She moaned. Her legs were tangled in the sheets; sweat blanketed her skin.
She dove back down into her dream, through layers of thought, anxiety, and consciousness.
Inhale, exhale. Breathe.
The river was widening, swallowing, then spitting up more bodies.
The Guédé, the death gods, in top hat and tails, were standing on a bridge, pointing at the dead. No—at something else. Something within the water.
“Let me see,” she murmured. “Let me see.”
The Guédé heard her. In unison, they shook their skull heads and pressed their white-gloved hands across their hollow eyes.
“Show me,” she demanded. “I am Marie.”
The Guédé opened their mouths. They didn’t make sound, rather, Marie felt their howling—an obscene absence of sound that terrorized, rattling her bones.
Both inside and outside her dream, Marie wanted to run, hide, burrow into a hole so deep, no one—tangible or intangible—could ever touch her.
Each night, this was when and where her dream ended—the Guédé howling, refusing to look deeper into the water.
If the Guédé were afraid to look, why should she?
Her body constricted; her respiration quickened; her legs grew rigid, tight. She rasped, “Let me see. I am Marie. I need to see.”
She fell, hard, fast. Screaming, she clawed at the sheets. Her body jerked; the freefall stopped.
Parallel, weightless, she floated inches above the river water.
Bodies bobbed so close she could touch them: a woman, her lips locked in a grimace, her arms flung over her head; a blue baby, covered in algae like a desolate infant Moses; and a man, twisted onto his side, insects burrowing into his exposed cheek and nostril.
Snakes greased through brown water. A baby crocodile perched on a dead body like a log.
She smelled waste—human and inhuman. She smelled decomposing rot and withered leaves.
In the polluted waters, there were layers of deepening darkness, darker than mud, darker than earth. Darker than any sin.
She heard: “Rise.” It wasn’t the Guédé—but the other spirit, the one, camouflaged, deep inside the water. She saw an outline—a face, human?—ascending. Then, it stopped; the spirit still cradled by deep waters.
Streams of white smoke rose from the dead, billowing like foam waves in the sky.
The dead were transformed into flying birds. Blackbirds. Thousands of blackbirds were flying south, escaping, soaring above the landscape, above cities, parishes, levees, and marshes. Flying toward a horizon split with orange, red, purple, and gold. Flying toward the river’s mouth.
The scream pierced sleep.
Marie jolted awake, stumbling out of bed, running. “Marie-Claire? Marie-Claire, I’m coming. Mama’s coming.”
The blue revolving lamp had stopped, its silhouettes of birds were dim and static on the ceiling and bedroom walls. The night-light, in the wall outlet, flickered, its power waning.
Marie-Claire lay facedown on the pillow.
“Baby.” Fearfully, gently, she turned Marie-Claire over.
Marie-Claire was asleep; her lids closed tight, her eyelashes fanning long, delicately. She was hot, her face flushed, her brown curls matted on her brow and neck. But no fever.
She was asleep.
Wind lifted the bedroom curtains like birds’ wings. Marie trembled with relief.
“Women hand sight down through the generations. Mother to daughter.”
She and Marie-Claire were bound by tragedy, bound by love and blood.
They were imbued with sight, spiritual gifts carried from Africa into the New World, through Marie Laveau, New Orleans’s famed, nineteenth-century Voodoo Queen.
Maybe Marie-Claire, too, had been awake inside some dream? Maybe she was still dreaming?
Marie prayed her daughter’s dreams were sweet. No bloated bodies. Only rainbows, magnolias, and friends at play.
“Marie-Claire,” she whispered, gently shaking her.
Marie-Claire’s eyes fluttered, her breath smelled like almonds.
“Mama, go bye? Go bye-bye.”
“Marie-Claire?” She held her daughter’s limp hand.
“Bye, Mama. Bye-bye.” Still slumbering, Marie-Claire turned, onto her side, her tiny fists curled beneath her chin.
Marie kissed the tip of her nose, then quickly turned, sensing a presence.
Baron Samedi, the Guédé leader, was solemn, all skeleton and shadow.
Cocking his head, he pointed a gloved finger at the night-light. It glowed, strong and bright, like a lighthouse guiding lost sailors home. He touched the lamp. The birds continued their kaleidoscopic flight across the ceiling and walls. Then, Samedi waved his hand.
“South. Birds flying south,” she whispered.
In the Sleeping Beauties case, she’d learned the Guédé despised those who interfered with death. She learned, too, that if the Guédé refused to dig your grave, you wouldn’t die.
Asleep and awake, the Guédé were guiding her.
“You coming?” she asked the baron softly.
Baron Samedi tipped his hat and shook his head. He sat on the bed, then leaned forward, his gloved fingers stroking Marie-Claire’s hair.
The hair on her skin rose. From her medical training, she knew it was a chemical reaction spurred by fear, the fight or flight response. Adrenaline was raising her blood pressure, making her heart beat faster.
It was startling to see Death touching Marie-Claire.
Baron Samedi smiled, a grimace of a skeletal jaw, lost and rotten teeth.
“You won’t hurt her.” It was a statement, not a question. The Guédé were encouraging her to follow her dream to its source.
“You don’t do oatmeal, do you?”
Samedi sat, cross-legged, at the foot of the bed.
Marie smiled. What better babysitter than Death itself?
She suddenly wanted to wake Marie-Claire. To see her smile and see herself reflected in her daughter’s eyes. She bent, pressing her lips against Marie-Claire’s cheek, inhaling her sweet scent.
“Thank you, Baron. I’m grateful.”
Samedi kept mute.
Marie walked quickly out of the room. She needed to call the hospital, rearrange her shifts. She needed to call the sitter, Louise. She’d take care of Marie-Claire’s temporal needs: fix her food, keep her warm, and read her a story. Without question, Marie-Claire would be safe. Baron Samedi himself would refuse to ferry her to the afterlife, the other world.
Marie let her drawstring pajama pants fall to the floor. She slipped on underwear, jeans, and buttoned a black shirt over her cotton tee. She pitched extra panties, shirts, a comb, and a toothbrush into an overnight bag.
What did it mean? Any of it?
The Guédé were telling her that the bodies in the river were only part of a mystery she needed to solve—there was still more to discover, more to dream.
She’d drive south. And pray she’d stay alive, her spirit whole.
She saw herself reflected in the mirror: thick brown hair pulled back in a ponytail; lean rather than voluptuous; bags beneath her eyes from working too hard as a mother, a doctor.
If the Guédé were here, her daughter was at risk. The balance between life and death was unsettled, unraveling.
Her life’s calling was to heal—and her dream, even though it didn’t make any sense, was, somehow, a call for her skills.
She snapped her overnight bag shut.
The river’s mouth, the river’s mouth.
There was only one place in Louisiana to go—the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf was where the Mississippi drained.
South. Drive south.
© 2011 Jewell Parker Rhodes