So, I haven’t blogged in a very long time. This isn’t because I’ve been neglecting my authorly duties. Instead, I’ve written another novel, one other than the sequel to The Children of Lehom. About three months ago, on my way to work, I suddenly had an idea for a novel. My best friend had recently given me some tarot cards, and I thought about how the Major Arcana follows a hero’s journey of sorts. Would that be a good way to structure a novel? Lo and behold, it appears the answer to that question is a resounding yes. My protagonist, a girl named Selene, suddenly began to take shape in my brain.
Now, as of this day, the book is done. I’m doing some editing as I continue to query for The Children of Lehom. If you’re curious, see the first chapter below!
Beneath the Garden of Stone Houses
Prologue: The Initiate
October 31, 1848, Faubourg Marigny, New Orleans
The first time the spirits visited me at our little yellow Creole cottage was on an early autumn evening when the air was just beginning to crisp after a long humid summer. I was huddled in a little dark corner of my room between my bed and the wall, with my cards spread out face up on the floor in front of me so I could see the people painted on them. My doll, Babette, and I were having a tea party with those illustrated guests. Although my room was next to Maman’s at the back of the house, I settled myself far enough away so I wouldn’t have to hear the noises coming from within. Those horrible grunts sounded exactly like the pigs over at the swine yard I sometimes passed with Maman on the way to the market. I also wanted to be far away from the rancid smell of Monsieur Le Jaune’s sweat as it mixed with her lemon verbena perfume.
I was six, then, and Babette and the cards were my only friends aside from Tante Jeanne, who gave me lessons in reading, mathematics, and proper comportment some days. Not on days like when the spirits first appeared, though, because Maman wouldn’t permit any visitors when M. Le Jaune was here. I wasn’t even allowed to leave the room when he came.
I was about to ask Babette if she wanted any tea when I saw two spirits saunter in through my closed window. My child’s mind instantly understood they weren’t human because they were transparent enough for the red evening sun to shine right through, almost giving them a pallor of translucent blood. The taller of the two wore a dapper black suit and top hat to match, and in one arm he carried a walking stick with a skull on the top. Strangely, too, one half of his face was the color of coffee and the other was white like a skull. He also wore dark glasses that hid his eyes. If he had eyes at all, that was. His skull-face broke into a teeth-and-mandible smile when I looked up at him and his shorter companion, whose arm was linked with his free one as if on a Sunday promenade. This lady spirit was beautiful, and she had skin the color of chocolate and curly red hair like my Maman, which she wore elegantly arranged on her head. What excited me most about her attire was her dress, a dark purple silk garment that flounced out just like Maman’s when she wore her crinoline underneath. I stared at dress covetously because Tante Jeanne said I was much too young for crinoline. The spirit didn’t wear as much jewelry as the rich women on promenade did, but she accessorized with a skull necklace and finger bone barrettes laced through her hair. I could tell she was friendly, too, because of her sparkling green eyes.
Looked back and forth between them and Babette, I quickly decided these interesting visitors were preferable to my doll and the frozen smile someone had painted on her dainty porcelain face. Based upon their bearing alone, I understood they were dignified entities, so I stood up and straightened my dress for the guests. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Selene O’Neil,” I said politely as I curtsied, just as Tante Jeanne had taught me to do when introducing myself. “Could I offer you some tea?” I then pointed to the two little cups of pretend tea Babette and I were sharing with the people on the cards. Those poor vessels had cracks in them, which was the reason I was allowed to play with them at all, and I worried my meager offerings would offend these distinguished guests.
The male spirit laughed at this. “Oh, my dear, but we already know your name! And we drink rum or coffee instead of tea.”
“Baron!” The lady gave her companion a playful swat on the arm even though his arm wasn’t really solid at all. “That doesn’t mean she knows us! Be polite to the young thing. You’ll frighten her.”
The man looked chagrined and removed his top hat, giving me a deep bow.
“I’m not afraid.” Indeed, this whole thing was curious and exciting. I longed for visitors on days when I was confined to my room. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you some coffee or rum. My Maman drinks those, but I’m not allowed to leave my room right now.”
“I’m glad you’re not afraid. We don’t mean you any harm. I’m Maman Brigitte, and you can call me Brigitte,” said the lady. She then pointed to her companion. “And this is Baron Samedi, or, simply, Baron.”
“But how did you know my name?” I asked. “We’ve never met!”
“We know your Papa,” Brigitte replied. “He told us all about you.”
“Papa!” I gasped.
He’d been dead for years, and I only had faint memories of him, mostly how he smelled of wood and lemons. He’d also had blue eyes just like me. And because he’d come from a place called Spain, his skin was the color of the cafe au late Maman bought me as a rare treat to accompany a beignet. I missed Papa so much. Now, Maman had Monsieur Le Jaune instead, but I didn’t like Oncle Maurice, as he’d commanded me to call him, even though he’d given me Babette. Maman said I should be grateful because he bought me my little brass bed, vanity, wardrobe, and three dresses. But I couldn’t muster up any thankfulness in my cautious, spiteful heart.
For not only was Oncle Maurice not my Papa, but he also hated me.
Maman didn’t see the poison darting from his eyes when he handed me his little presents. I suppose she was grateful for him because he got us this house in Marigny and gave us money for food, clothing, and my lessons. Did that mean she cared for him or that she simply tolerated his presence? I didn’t know. She used to look at Papa with such love, something she never did with Oncle. I also understood there was a price Maman paid for all of these gifts when I heard the unpleasant noises coming from her bedroom. I once asked her why we stayed here. She said we had no support system in the country, and her family in Ireland had all died in a famine recently. Monsieur Le Jaune kept up alive.
“Don’t be afraid,” Baron said kindly.
“But I’m not,” I insisted, giving him a curious look. “I just don’t understand. How do you know him? He’s dead! Are you ghosts?”
“We work with your Papa,” Brigitte explained. “And we’re not ghosts. We’re loas. Spirits. We help people when they ask.”
“That’s true, my beautiful Brigitte! But you’re not telling her all of it.” Baron laughed and slapped his knee before bowing again to me. “Selene, your Papa also worked with us before he died. As can you if you wish.”
“Yes! Please! Can you help me talk to Papa, too?” I blurted out, sounding like the impulsive child Oncle Maurice said I was. No, that wasn’t proper. I didn’t want to be rude to my guests. Blushing, I curtsied. “Please forgive my outburst, but I would like to work with you. And could you please tell me how I could talk to my Papa?”
“Why do you think we’re here?” As Brigitte twisted her necklace, I realized she and Baron had become more solid since they’d materialized. More real. So much so they even cast shadows on the floor now.
“How can I talk to him? Can I see him, too?” My voice came much louder than I’d intended.
“Shh, child, shh. Whisper, or he’ll hear you,” Baron cautioned, bringing his hands-made-of-bones to the side of his face with lips. “I’m not talking about your Papa but the man next door.”
“Oncle Maurice?” I asked in a hushed voice. I certainly didn’t want him to come in here.
“Yes, him,” Baron said, giving me a knowing look.
I continued to whisper, “How can I see my father?”
“You can see him when you’re older. When you can visit him on your own.” The beautiful lady pointed to my cards. “Until then, use those to talk to him.”
Perplexed, I knelt down and skimmed through the pile, studying them intently for clues on how they could help me speak to Papa. On one side, someone had painted a purple background and a decoration of stars and crosses. I thought it was a very pretty design, but I didn’t see how they’d be helpful, so I flipped the pile over and studied the cards with people on them. All of the figures of men and women were different, and I spoke to them, of course, when offering them tea, but they’d never replied back. Finally, I scrutinized the cards with varying numbers of swords, cups, sticks, or disks with stars carved on them. Those ones were good for practicing my figures, but I didn’t know how I could use them to contact my dead father. At a loss, I asked Brigitte, “How do they work?”
This beautiful spirit let go of Baron’s arm and sashayed over to my bed, drew her skirts under her, and sat down. “It’s simple. Before you try, spend time with every card until you know their meanings. Trust your instincts. After you understand the significance of each, organize the cards in a deck. Purple side up. Then, ask your Papa a question out loud, shuffle the cards, and turn over one at a time until you have your answer, be it one card or ten.”
I stared at this gift in wonder and doubted my ability at first. “That will work?” I sounded skeptical. “They’ve never spoken to me before.”
“So you think,” said Baron, twirling his walking stick. “But your connection to those cards is what summoned us here in the first place. And with practice, you’ll become stronger.”
I stood again and clapped my hands in delight. “So that’s how you got here.”
The Baron nodded. “Well, that and your Papa asked us to come. We said we would if we felt invited by you.”
Smiling at the cards, I absorbed all of this news. “And I can see Papa when I’m older?”
“Yes,” Brigitte replied. “Until then, we’ll come keep you company. If you need us at a specific moment, you can call us over with a glass of water and maybe a bit of Oncle Maurice’s tobacco. But only if you can take some without being seen. Also, first leave something small for Papa Legba. Like chocolate or a shiny penny. Ask him to open the door, and then call us through. We can come without him, of course, but it’s more polite to ask his permission.”
“Who’s Papa Legba?” I asked, wondering where I’d get these gifts for him. I wasn’t allowed to have chocolate too often because Maman said it would ruin my teeth, and I was too young to carry money.
“The Gatekeeper,” Baron said, probably realizing my access to such gifts was limited. “If you can’t find chocolate or a penny for him, find a discarded gift on the street or sing him a song. He will take any gift that comes from your heart.”
I nodded. To my six-year-old mind, this made sense. Places like houses, gardens, or courtyards had gates and doors, and sometimes you needed certain keys to get them open. I could find the keys I needed if I used my heart. “And where do you live?” I asked, curious about their home. “Behind Papa Legba’s gate?
“Yes, behind a gate of sorts. The gate to the Garden of Stone Houses,” Brigitte replied. “It is a lively place with many parties. And your Papa lives beneath it.”
The Garden of Stone Houses. The only places that looked like such gardens were the many walled or gated cities for the dead that decorated New Orleans. “Which garden?” I asked.
Baron twirled his walking stick and smiled. “We are in all of them, child.”
Because they were spirits, this was logical. Spirits could go where they wanted when they wanted. And they had parties? Their home sounded much better than this small house with my small, dark bedroom that smelled of damp and pungent roses from the walled garden outside. The biggest reason I wanted to go with them was that Papa was also there and Oncle Maurice wasn’t. “Can I come with you?” I pleaded.
Baron sighed. “Not yet, child. Not yet. There’ll be plenty of time for that when you’re older.”
Older. When, exactly, was older? It seemed too far away for my taste, but I wasn’t about to be rude to my guests and demand to come with them sooner than I could. “I understand. And thank you,” I said, curtseying again. “I promise to keep your visit a secret.”
Brigitte smiled at the Baron. “See? She’s a smart one. Just like her father said.” She then turned to me. “The baseboard behind your bed is loose. Keep your cards in there from now on. To keep them safe.”
That request was strange because Maman was the one who had given me the cards in the first place. She said they were a precious gift I should protect, and I normally kept them in the drawer of my nightstand, a beautifully carved piece of furniture I cherished because it was something of mine that wasn’t from Oncle Maurice. Why hide them from her now? However, these spirits must have had a reason for requesting this of me, so I promised to do as they asked.
“It’s time for us to go,” the Baron said, craning his neck to look outside the window. “Stay in this room until that horrible Oncle leaves.”
“I always do,” I assured them. The needn’t have told me. Although my mother rarely spanked me, she would certainly do it if I left my room before Oncle Maurice departed.
I wanted to be a good girl, not because Maman or Tante Jeanne told me, but because I sensed these spirits expected it of me. So, I spent the rest of that evening studying the cards and arriving at my own interpretations of each until I heard my mother’s bedroom door open and Oncle’s heavy footsteps creak across the wooden hallway to the front door.
I loved how his steps got quieter and quieter, for it meant he was leaving for the evening. Knowing Maman would come to get me as soon as she bathed him away, I secured the cards in the space behind the baseboard as the spirits commanded.
At first, I was worried I’d never see them again. My childhood was very lonely, and they were wonderful company. However, thankfully, they appeared again three nights later. And then again and again throughout my childhood.