Authors: Michael Romkey
HE FRENCH DOORS at the rear of the parlor stood open, letting cool night air spill into the house. Outside in the garden, the shadowy outlines of orchids and ferns came to life with each breath of wind, starveling forms animated in darkness. There was an exotic genus of flower in the garden that opened its blossoms only to the moon. Nathaniel Peregrine had not been in the South long enough to know it by name, but he could sometimes smell its perfume, when the scent was not hidden beneath the cloying sweetness of the incenselike smoke that permeated the house.
Peregrine’s long frame was stretched out on a divan. Beside him asleep was a young woman in a gown made of burgundy velvet. With eyes half closed, he watched the air slip through the trembling specters in the garden. The breeze combed small, brittle music from the bamboo wind chimes, a sound like the delicate clicking of finger bones strung together with black thread. Peregrine seemed to have no more presence than did the wind; he felt insubstantial, a puff of smoke, an outline drawn in fog, a ghost who continued to haunt his body though his real life had ended in September of the previous year.
His eyelids, too heavy to resist gravity, fell closed again.
The house seemed to float upward with the wind, rising and falling with each whisper of air. He pictured it crossing the river, picking up speed as it left the city behind, like a ship when wind fills the sails, sending it flying through parting seas. Over the bayous, toward the Gulf of Mexico, where it would lose momentum with the dying breeze and drop into the dark waters, sinking beneath the waves. There, the house and its habitués would settle slowly into a lightless abyss beyond the touch of sun and seasons, a safe black nothingness where the pain of living could no longer find them.
The breeze turned, renewing the quiet, almost imperceptible clicking of the wind chimes, counting tears one by one.
Click, click, click, click, click…
Peregrine opened his eyes wide and his head came up from the silk pillow, which was embroidered with an image of a dragon chasing its own tail. The house—square, stolid, built of red brick—remained firmly anchored to its stone foundation in the middle of a street a few blocks from the Mississippi River on the upstream end of the French Quarter.
Nothing had changed.
Horrible as it was to realize, nothing had changed.
Before the war, planters divided their days between Garden District mansions and the plantation great houses where slaves tended fields of cotton stretching from ivory-pillared porches to the horizon. New Orleans was a treasure city, the capital of an antebellum aristocracy built upon the lash. Ships from Europe came into port to trade for cotton. The wharves were lined with warehouses that groaned with riches. Traders, captains, and ship owners became as wealthy as the landed gentry.
An ancient Indian prophecy warned the city to beware of death by water, and so it twice came, in 1812 with the British, and a half century later, in 1863. Union forces attacked the Crescent City from two directions during the Civil War. First came the sea blockade, severing the vein that carried the city’s golden lifeblood. But the city did not fall until an assault was thrown down the river. Now soldiers wearing uniforms of midnight blue patrolled the streets, and the city’s inhabitants were subjected to the marshal law of a Yankee general who had no love for the South.
Outside the city, in the countryside of nearby parishes, the great houses that had not been burned were mostly occupied by Union officers. The slaves had run away, the cotton confiscated or left to rot in the fields. And New Orleans, Pearl of the Mississippi Delta, was transformed into a purgatory of shattered family dynasties and lost fortunes.
A match flared in the dim room. Someone muttered a few indistinct words punctuated with a dry cough.
Peregrine lifted his hand a few inches. Yu, the opium den’s keeper, came to him and knelt on the floor to prepare another pipe. The woman beside Peregrine stirred, awakened by the smell of smoke. She looked up at Peregrine until he finished and passed her the pipe.
Evangeline McAllister had already known hardship in her young life. Her fiancé, one of Jeb Stuart’s officers, had been killed at Bull Run. Her home was destroyed in the siege of Vicksburg, her father shot dead trying to stop Union soldiers from setting fire to his shops. She had come to New Orleans to stay with a maiden aunt, but the old woman had died, too, carried away by influenza, leaving the girl penniless and in the sort of straits that lead young women to desperate measures.
Peregrine put his head back against the pillow and closed his eyes, listening to the sound of Evangeline drawing the sickly-sweet blue smoke up the opium pipe’s silver stem.
The wind returned in a silent rush as the narcotic seemed to take hold of him by the base of the brain, pulling him down into its dream, smothering him with a warm blanket of forgetfulness. The house opened itself to the night, unfolding like a giant puzzle box. There were invisible fingers under Peregrine, lifting him gently into the sky. He floated over the city, waiting for the wind to blow over him again, extinguishing this last bit of consciousness, and with it the everlasting grief.
Peregrine awoke with the sense that time had passed. The garden was dark, so it was still night, although it could have been the next night for all he knew. It was a little like waking up after the Battle of Antietam, coming out of a coma to find he was not in the afterlife but in an army field hospital. The doctors did not expect him to live and gave him generous quantities of opium to ease the suffering. The drugs helped to ease his physical pain, and with it the real source of his misery, which had nothing to do with the rebel bullets the doctors had dug out of his shoulder, chest, and leg. But Peregrine did not die, and in the months of convalescence, the poppy became a constant companion for the newly promoted brigadier general.
How many pipes had Peregrine taken that night with Evangeline?
Yu would give him an accurate reckoning. The opium den keeper was a scrupulous businessman, never asking for more or accepting less than his due, never admitting a customer whose account was in arrears.
Peregrine debated with himself briefly before deciding to have one last pipe before returning to his boardinghouse. He looked around again, but the Chinaman was nowhere to be found. Peregrine closed his eyes and was instantly asleep. When he next opened his eyes, he felt the presence of someone bending over him. He expected it to be Yu, but instead there was a girl hovering so close to Evangeline it seemed she was about to kiss the woman as she floated inside the dragon’s dream. The girl bowed over them had the sort of face that causes men to forget what they’re saying in midsentence and stare openmouthed. Her face was as perfectly drawn as a doll’s, her skin white as porcelain and nearly translucent, the color made all the more striking by the vivid red of her lips. She was far too young to be in an opium den.
“Hello,” Peregrine said. He wanted to tell her an angel had no business in such a place, but he did not have the will to make himself speak further.
The girl’s large green eyes turned up to his in a slow movement of such languor that Peregrine felt desire stir deep inside of him. It was only by degrees that Peregrine realized the girl’s hand was upon Evangeline’s breast, which had been freed from the low-cut bodice of her dress. Evangeline’s skin was golden in the candlelight but for its small raised circle of rose-colored flesh.
The girl held Peregrine’s stare until his body caught up with his mind enough for him to draw back from the two women. She smiled to see the shame he felt at awaking to such an intimate moment.
The girl turned her attention back to Evangeline, burying her face in the soft flesh of her neck. Evangeline moaned and drew the other woman near. Then her eyes flew open with a sharp, reflexive movement, as if with a stab of pain. But the unnatural passion seemed to take full possession of her in the next moment. Another low moan escaped her lips, and the pupils disappeared beneath the upper lids of her hooded eyes.
The bizarre tableau attracted as well as repulsed Peregrine, and disgusted as he was, he could not make himself look away, as if driven by the power of an irresistible attraction to witness the unspeakable.
The girl brushed back a tendril of jet black hair that had fallen across her face, and she glanced up at him as if to judge his reaction. She seemed completely unashamed, and indeed, he saw a sparkle of wicked delight in her eyes, though whether from her debasement or Peregrine’s he did not know.
New Orleans was a decadent place, he thought, a wretched whirlpool of depravity, where the innocent were sucked into degradation, women abandoned, children ruined. Sin had accumulated in the old port city as thick and viscous as river mud.
Peregrine saw a fluid motion of color at Evangeline’s neck as the young girl broke off the embrace and pushed herself up on one arm, her eyes never leaving Peregrine’s. Difficult as it was to break away from those mesmerizing eyes, it was impossible for him to keep from staring at the twin puncture wounds in Evangeline’s neck. Two rivulets of blood trickled from where the young woman’s mouth had been on the neck. Evangeline’s eyes stared at the ceiling, sightless. Peregrine knew the look well enough. She was dead.
“What manner of fiends…”
The girl grinned back at him, her teeth so white they were almost blue, parting her lips so that he could see how she had done the thing. She had fangs like a viper, the tips red with the blood she’d drunk from the living fountain, now dead between them.
Peregrine squeezed his eyes shut. It wasn’t real. The beautiful demon was the work of the poppy. She laughed merrily when he opened his eyes again and realized that all was as it had been. He could hear madness in her laughter.
Peregrine tried to push her away but felt what little strength the opium had left him run out like water from an overturned cup. He sank back against the divan, helpless to resist the creature who was so strangely filling his soul with equal measures of dread and desire.
“I see so much suffering in your broken heart,” she said, the words an intimate whisper intended for Peregrine’s ears alone. “Your poor family.”
She waited for him to gather himself enough to speak.
“How did you know?”
The new kindness in her eyes drained the alarm from Peregrine. He had never seen her before that night, but for some unknown reason he had the sense that they had known each other for a very long time. He felt close to her, as if they had shared many long discussions and he had told her the innermost secrets of his mind. For whatever reason, he began to trust her. He could see the caring in her eyes, like the limitless compassion of a Madonna.
“I know everything, my love,” she said. “Everything.”
She put her hand against his face. Her skin was warm, nearly feverish, but dry. Somehow he could feel her pulse through her fingertips. Their two hearts were beating as one.
“I can free you from the pain,” she said, her lips now against his ear.
A feeling of warmth flooded through him, releasing all tension from muscle and sinew, his will replaced completely with desire. Peregrine was not a religious man, but now he was convinced that the Angel of Death existed, an exquisite creature whose embrace no man or woman would want to resist. He closed his eyes and waited for the bliss of death to cleanse him forever of misery and hate.
There was a commotion in the front of the house. Peregrine had the impression of men coming noisily into the parlor as if searching for something, but he did not open his eyes, not wanting to break the spell. Surely the Angel of Death could not be distracted by the trifling interruptions of helpless mortals.
“There he is, me boys!” cried a voice thick with a familiar Irish brogue.
A strong hand gripped Peregrine by the upper arm.
“Come on, sir, let’s get ye home.”
Peregrine opened his eyes, knowing he would find himself facing Captain Seamus O’Rourke, his aide. And so it was. The beautiful angel was nowhere to be seen, his opportunity for release from earthly care snatched cruelly away at the last possible moment.
O’Rourke’s expression changed as his eyes settled on Evangeline.
“Damn me, Peregrine, what have you done? The wench is dead!”
“My God, Captain,” one of the soldiers cried out. “They’re all dead!”