For a very long time I’ve wanted to write a novel that focuses on New Orleans – the home of my teen-age years. New Orleans is where I discovered Tarot Cards, tealeaves, and held my Quinceanera (although I am French-Canadian and Scot, not Latin – I still got the party!) The swirl of French, Latin, and Caribbean cultures made my five-year Big Easy Experience ‘lifetime memorable’.
One day last year, well before NaNoWriMo 2012 took place, I was listening to an NPR program about New Orleans’ Voodoo Queen, Maria Laveau. The program caught my attention because of the Voodoo Queen’s connection to my hometown of New Orleans. Images of the filigreed French Quarter, Black Magic and Voodoo, a grab for wealth, and the vagaries of the Catholic Church began to swirl in my mind, and ‘Losing Sight: New Orleans in The Voodoo Era’ took shape. By November 2012 it was in the cards that I devote myself to a NaNoWriMo novel that combined the rich colors, and magical essence, of The Big Easy.
I have just completed the first re-write of ‘Losing Sight: New Orleans in The Voodoo Era’. Before its ‘Day of the Dead’ release it’s going to take two more re-writes and an editor’s assistance to get this dizzying Mardi Gras carnival of a story through its exciting paces. Readers will visualize, in story form, the deep purple and vibrant green, the strands of gold, and strings of pearls that symbolize my New Orleans hometown.
WANT A GLIMPSE into how the novel begins? I hope so! Here is the first rough-cut of 1,500 words of ‘Losing Sight: New Orleans in The Voodoo Era’
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1853 ~ New Orleans’ Garden District
It all occurred in the Garden District of New Orleans – where beautiful estates hide in the shade of tree-lined boulevards. The year was 1853, when family secrets were guarded vigilantly – some even from beyond the grave.
Dusky light streamed into the bedroom of young heiress, Victoria Calais. The pinkish effect cast the room in that late afternoon hue that foreshadows an evening storm. Flying toward the Crescent City was the kind of disturbance that causes shutters to bang against the houses and the shadows of gnarled oaks to bob and weave across expansive lawns. The squall would cause lightning bolts to dance along darkened carriage lanes, like skeletons frolicking at the undertaker’s ball.
Victoria was seated in front of the mirror – unable to make out her own reflection. Her fingertips, like the feelers of an ant, followed along the edges of each item that was laid out on the embroidered runner that decorated her vanity. The debutante straightened each article. The brush was lined up with the comb, and the comb lined up with the curling iron. She ran the palm of her hand over each colorful cosmetic jar. The jar lids were decorated with a different textured bauble or jewel – either pearls, or sequins, or precious stones.
From memory Victoria tapped her fingernails on the glass container of carmine – to her left. Next, the texture of seed pearls greeted her fingertips. To the right of the carmine sat a tin of charcoal, to darken her brunette lashes. Sequins decorated that container – easily distinguishable. A square-cut amber adorned the dainty container of beeswax. A place for everything and everything in its place, that is the only way it can be – from now on.
A gentle breeze rustled through Victoria’s bedroom reminding her that she was not alone. She craned her neck. “Hello?”
No answer. The budding ingénue shook her head, and her lustrous brunette curls bounced slightly. Am I mistaken? (She was prone to second-guessing herself.) My instincts need to be honed even more. This calling out, like an insecure child must stop soon, she admonished herself. Whoever is there will not answer, and I cannot expect Grandmother to be beside me every moment of the day.
As her room continued to cool off with the approaching evening, the wind rustled the palm fronds outside her open bedroom window. The fragrance of gardenias wafted up from the estate’s gardens as the curtains billowed and curled in the gentle breeze.
Victoria reached across her vanity and touched the cool surface of the mirror. “Dear God, I am indeed going blind. I stare into a milky abyss that spreads further across my field of vision with each passing day. For all intents and purposes I am blind right now.” She traced the outline of her own face – from memory.
A tear rolled slowly down Victoria’s cheek. Dr. Faust’s diagnosis, delivered the previous week, had been devastating. Hysterical blindness was his prognosis.
“There’s nothing I can do. A psychologist would be better suited for what Victoria is going through,” he stated brusquely to Victoria’s grandmother, Madame Calais, as he snapped the clasp on his medical bag.
The diagnosis did not sit well with Madame Calais, if her outburst was any indication. “You fool! That’s ridiculous! She’s not hysterical. Look at her! If anything she’s depressed.”
Victoria’s cheeks grew hot knowing that she was being scrutinized as though she were a laboratory specimen.
Well, whatever the cause of Victoria’s blindness – whether from disease, or a psychological cause – the effect was the same. Two months ago, quite suddenly, and just days after Yellow Fever took the lives of her sister and parents – Victoria began losing her sight.
Putting the doctor’s distressing words out of her mind for a few moments, the young woman pushed back her wicker stool and stood up. She placed her tortoise shell comb back on the embroidered runner. Poised and balanced, with the back of her knees pressing against the little stool, she lined up her feet – a dainty stance. Squaring her shoulders, Victoria moved forward with the practiced intention of crossing her room from the vanity to the bed. She had done it hundreds of times over the past months. She was careful – with just a touch of apprehension. An opaque void stretched out in front of her. Right foot first, then left foot; counting the steps aloud she proceeded.
There! The folds of Victoria’s skirt brushed the coverlet. Victoria moved around the edge of the bed to the right. At the headboard she folded down her blankets and plumped the pillow, sweeping her hand underneath. There it is, exactly where it should be. She wound her late mother’s rosary around her fingers, clutching it for dear life.
Everything must be in order. Everything must be in order. Another mantra, repeated. The wardrobe cabinet was in the exact location as when her grandmother occupied the same Calais Estate bedroom decades earlier. Massive, and twenty steps away, it stood at the other end of the expansive room – which up until recently had been shared by two.
Victoria repeated the step-cadence that took her from her vanity to her bed and crossed from the bed to the wardrobe. One. . . two. . . three. She walked forward, steadying herself and concentrating on her stride. The tip of her right toe struck the wardrobe. She reached out for the two ornate handles of the cabinet and placed her fingertips on each, swinging the doors open wide, imagining the contents. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes – remembering. The sweet sachet of roses and tea greeted her. It overwhelmed her.
Running her hands over her dresses she recalled which ones were light-colored, and which ones were made of lace. She touched the covered buttons and the finished seams. She moved from one sachet-filled hanger to the next, left to right, until she came to her mourning gowns – all three of them – hanging at the back of the wardrobe had once belonged to her sister, Evangeline. Victoria moved the hangers, spacing the long heavy dresses uniformly across the hanging bar. The wardrobe contained so many more dresses before Evangeline’s death. Rich textures, heavy fabrics, all carrying the fragrance of rose petals. Tears welled up, collecting in Victoria’s eyelashes. Her mouth watered, and her throat felt as though it was closing. Her nose stung in her attempt to gulp back the tears.
She remembered what life had been like during the past few months. She was haunted by her sister’s plaintive whisper, “Who else will the Yellow Fever strike?” It was the question that loomed in the mind of every New Orleans resident – whether estate owner, shop keeper, or slave. Day after day the air vibrated with the peal of church bells. You will be next was Fate’s refrain. And within days her mother, her sister, and her father were dead, victims of the Fever.
Victoria stood on her tiptoes and felt along the top shelf of the wardrobe until her fingertips located Evangeline’s doll. It had been years – when they were both much younger – since they had played with the doll. Victoria’s sense of longing washed over her as she pulled the porcelain-faced fashion figure toward her. As she tugged at its skirt, the fashion doll fell over with a loud thunk, its porcelain head hitting the mahogany plank of the shelf.
Her cat cried out, startled. “Meow!”
“Oh, Bon-Bon! Did I frighten you, Mon petite Cher?”
Victoria turned toward the plaintive cry just as the black and white cat bounded down from the bed and pranced across the richly woven carpet toward her. The little bell on Bon-Bon’s collar foretold her whereabouts.
The young mistress felt the weight of the feline rubbing up against her boots, entwining itself in a serpentine pattern at her feet. The cat purred loudly, a soothing, low rumble.
“Oh, my dear, don’t fret. Let’s put Evangeline’s doll on my bed, shall we? Then we will have something that reminds us of the happy times when even sisterly squabbles were better than the heavy curtain of our current day-in, day-out, silence. Bon-Bon, can you guide me back to my bed?”
Victoria heard the little bell fastened to the cat’s collar as it scampered back over to the bed.
“Who understands what has gone on in this room better than you, my attentive little sentry.”
Victoria retraced her steps, her left arm wrapped around the doll, her right arm stretched out into the unknown.
“Are you there, Bon-Bon?”
A repetitious mew guided her back toward the bed one carefully retraced step at a time.
Quite suddenly Victoria stumbled forward. It was an unexpected lurch into the cavernous uncertainty that was her new world. Victoria clawed the air as she went down, drawing the porcelain-faced doll closer. A tangled-skirt tumble would easily shatter the doll’s face into a thousand pieces. Victoria caught her awkward fall with her left hand, and cried out in pain as she landed. Her petticoats formed a billowy cloud of netting and lace; she untangled her gazelle-like legs and sat upright.
Bang! The doors of the wardrobe crashed shut. The wardrobe was once again closed off from Victoria.
“Hello! Answer me this time! Is someone there?”
An eerie, unsettling silence was the reply, as a chill crept across the room.
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