“I’d guess I’d better start at the beginning. I guess the beginning is as good a place as any to start.
“I met some friends of mine, from out of town, at about eight, eight thirty. We met in the French Quarter and followed the lively river of people along Bourbon Street. It was a hot night, when is it not and the streets were breathing with the heat. You know how it is down here that scorched aroma of too much life and too little care, well that night, honey, I think every brick was praying for rain and redemption. Anyway, we partied at a few bars, drank a few beers and then at this one place we sat back and listen to some pure Creole music, you know the sort, hot and spicy, southern jazz, music you can taste, music for your soul.
“God knows how long we stayed there, in New Orleans there is no ‘time’ just darkness and light. When my friends made their way back to their hotel it was almost a new day but I had no sleep in me; so I stayed and watched the city, drank a strong coffee and witnessed the day kiss the night good-bye.
“There was a freshness in that morning, a sparkle, a polish. It was a time in-between heat and hot, as if the day was hesitating, stuttering in the new light. The streets, by now, were almost empty, there, there were a few that staggered and a few that slept against doors, corpse like, but I guess they would be swept up in the change of a new day.
“By now my stomach was yawning so with food on my mind I sat down in the courtyard, out back, of a bar just up from Pat O’Brien’s. It was empty except for a couple sat behind the glass partition in front of me. I don’t know why I chose that spot when there were so many empty tables to choose from, but I did; and I’m quite sorry for it now.
“I half recognised the boy and girl from the previous evening, I’d caught glimpses of them around the town. They were both so young, you see, couldn’t be more than sixteen years and there they were out in the passion that is New Orleans, just drifting when most people were buoyant and full: almost like shadows.
“Now let me think and, and try and get this right somehow.
“She, she called him Joe, that’s what made me look up, from my orange juice and eggs. You see, I call my kid bother; Joseph, Joe and it kinda caught my attention. I didn’t mean to pry but I sorta got caught up in them. Anyway, she’d been crying, that, that was quite obvious. Eyes red and puffed up and her face had a sorta lostness about it, you know, when your eyes see but don’t focus? The boy, he just sat there stirring his cup of coffee. Well, I imagined it to be coffee, you know how you do? I could hear this incessant, metal, melody, above the hush tones coming from the jukebox.
“There seemed to be this, this silent apprehension shrouding them, almost like, like a storm; one of those ones that’s just all static, no noise, just sparks in the air. I could feel its tension, its force, its entity, if you like, even from outside. It felt like something was unfolding in front of me. I could just taste the invisible fire that seemed to light the very air I breathed and they seem to be in its vortex.
“I know that might sound a little dramatic but believe me, you were not there.
“At one point, as if to stop himself spinning out of control, he reached out and took her hand, holding it soft like. She then looked at him her face melting into a hundred tears and she whispered she loved him. He looked down at that hand without words to hide the pain unwrapping in his heart. She, she closed her eyes and they touched in the pure sense of love offering themselves unspoken. I knew their time was short, for whatever reason, I could sense it in their story.
“She then spoke, her voice a southern mix of cotton fields and Moulin Rouge. She told him how she wished that their night could undying, how she’d beg God not to sever their souls and damn the dawn to the Devil for its persecution of their love.
“She grabbed at the sliver cross around her neck so hard that its chain broke. It fell to the floor without a backward glance from either of them.
“The boy then went back to his cup of coffee and just kept stirring for a while like it contained his whole world. He seemed to go though the motions of raising it to his lips, and then stopped, as if to say something but it got lost between them and he couldn’t find it again. She put her head in her hand and played with the pattern on her skirt as if drawing out time; then, then the world stopped for moment.
“Oh, I know how that sounds but everything appeared to go still; icy still, like an open grave. I remember a coolness trembling through my body working its way from the inside out and my breathing stopped. I became a fixture in some damned oil painting whose brush strokes unveiled before me. That’s when I heard the footsteps, you know, the ones made by new boots, steel and echoing.
“The boy looked up toward that old jukebox and I followed his gaze. All I could see was darkness but I felt something else, something menacing. I heard the nickel drop shattering the scene before me like broken glass and Fats Domino sang out into the stillness. The tune was taken up in a husky murmur and the menacing tap, tap, tap of steel against the floor.
“It was then the boy spoke, almost silently, like a small child in its prayers, he said, “In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love. “ I watched a lone tear escaped from his soul.
“Then a shadow fell across them marking them and they turned to face me through the glass. I, I, did try and look away but I was drawn to make eye contact and in that minute, in that very second, I saw them both for the first time. She like the desert sand, marred by the footsteps of the wind, he, he, like a sleepless child broken by the sunlight; and there was something else there, something behind them.
“How can I explain? It was more than a shadow, less than a man but it was there, for it touched them both on the shoulder with an unkind hand. I did not look further for it, for fear that my heart would not return and I would end up sightless in the world of the living. And then in a flick of the breeze they were gone. The glass was empty and I, I in the heat of a new morning was ice.
“I left my table, for I did not want to stay one moment longer, and as I left I met an old Creole woman with dark looks and Spanish eyes. She took my hand and staid it with the calmness of her grasp reading the thoughts that were jumping under my skin. “Do you understand, child?” She said in a voice of sweet molasses.
“I shook my head for the shadows across my heart had erased my mind of reason. So she told me a tale of young love, a love that can stop your heart and break it in two, a first love that is both birth and epitaph on the souls of mankind.
“She told of a boy and a girl fighting opposition in a hostile world gone mad with blood and colour. So the Mississippi whispered to them both and they ran to the distant horizon leaving their footsteps to follow. When nightfall came and they were one under the stars the girl wept for all that was now lost to her. She was young, you understand, and afraid of the journey ahead.
“The boy felt this uncertainty too but he tried not to let it show for he knew, together, they were strong and would build many bridges.
“What happened next was but a flip of a coin. Apprehension and faltering steps, backward glances, decision, guilt and unkind words. He did not mean to strike out, she was, after all, his own reflection in life but in a second all his sacrifice ate him whole and he bled with the anger; and somewhere the Devil laughed.
“So the circle turned and love, for that split second, became hate and by his own hand the girl died leaving him with a remorseful heart. And what of a life that has no soul? This boy who loved and hated in the draw of a breath. He, he followed a different path into death made by his own hand and the depths of the Mississippi.
“So apart they lie and many years have rained upon their bones but their story still lives. For one night of the year two souls, separated by one action, wander through the streets of New Orleans and after the dawn death reclaims his children.
“She handed me this, before she left, a tarnished silver cross, simple but for the engraving on the back “1 Corinthians 13: 13”
“I looked it up, “In a word, there are three things that last forever: faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of them all is love.””
Copyright RMC Dec 2017