Merrick, p.8

Merrick, page 8

 part  #7 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series



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Chapter 7



  THE FOLLOWING NIGHT, I rose to find the sky uncommonly clear and full of visible stars. A good omen to all those in a state of grace. This is not the normal thing for New Orleans, as the air is very filled with moisture, and frequently the sky has a veiled appearance and little spectacle of cloud and light.

  Having no need to feed, I went directly to the Windsor Court Hotel, once again entering its very lovely modern lobby, a space which has all the usual elegance of an older establishment, and went up to Merrick's suite.

  She had only just left, I was informed, and a maid was engaged in preparing the rooms for a next guest.

  Ah, she had stayed longer than I had expected, but not as long as I'd hoped. However, imagining her to be safely on her way back to Oak Haven, I checked with the desk to see if she had left any message for me. She had.

  I waited until I was alone outside to read the short note:

  "Have gone to London to retrieve from the vault those few items which we know are connected with the child. "

  So things had progressed so far!

  Of course, she was referring to a rosary and a diary which our fieldworker Jesse Reeves had found in the flat in the Rue Royale over ten years before. And if memory served me correctly, there were a few other things which had been collected a century earlier from an abandoned hotel room in Paris where rumor had led us to believe that vampires had lodged.

  I was alarmed.

  But what had I expected? That Merrick would resist my request?

  Nevertheless, I'd never anticipated that she would act so quickly. Of course I knew that she could obtain the items in question. She was quite powerful within the Talamasca. She had unlimited access to the vaults.

  It occurred to me to try to call her at Oak Haven, to tell her that we must discuss the matter a little further. But I couldn't risk it.

  The members of the Talamasca there were only a small number, but each was gifted psychically and in a different way. The phone can be a powerful connecter between souls, and I simply could not have someone there sensing something "strange" about the voice on the other end of the line.

  There I left the matter, and I set out for our flat in the Rue Royale.

  As I entered the carriageway, something soft moved past my leg. I stopped and searched the darkness until I made out the shape of another giant black cat. Surely it had to be another. I couldn't imagine the creature I had seen the night before having followed us home with no incentive of food or milk.

  The cat vanished in the rear courtyard garden and was gone when I reached the back iron stairs. But I didn't like this. I didn't like this cat. No, not at all. I took my time in the garden. I walked about the fountain, which had recently been cleaned and stocked with large goldfish, and I spent more than a few moments gazing at the faces of the stone cherubs, with their conches held high, now quite overrun with lichen, and then looking about at the overgrown flower patches along the brick walls.

  The yard was kept, yet out of hand, its flagstones swept, but its plants gone wild. Lestat probably wanted it that way, insofar as he cared. And Louis loved it.

  Suddenly, when I had just about resolved to go upstairs, I saw the cat again, a huge black monster of a thing in my book, but then I don't like cats, creeping on the high wall.

  A multitude of thoughts crowded my mind. I felt an ever increasing excitement about this project with Merrick and a certain foreboding which seemed a necessary price. It frightened me suddenly that she had left so abruptly for London, that I had worked such a distraction upon her that she had abandoned whatever projects in which she might have been engaged.

  Should I tell Louis what she had set out to do? It would certainly bring about a finality to our plans.

  Entering the flat, I turned on all the electric lights in every room, a detail which was our custom by this time, and one upon which I depended heavily for some sense of normality, no matter that it was a mere illusion, but then, perhaps normality is always an illusion. Who am I to say?

  Louis arrived almost immediately after, coming up the rear stairs with his usual silken step. It was the heartbeat I heard in my alert state, not the footfall at all.

  Louis found me in the rear parlor, the one more distant from the noises of the tourists in the Rue Royale, and with its windows open to the courtyard below. I was in fact looking out the window, looking for the cat again, though I didn't tell myself so, and observing how our bougainvillea had all but covered the high walls that enclosed us and kept us safe from the rest of the world. The wisteria was also fierce in its growth, even reaching out from the brick walls to the railing of the rear balcony and finding its way up to the roof.

  I could never quite take for granted the lush flowers of New Orleans.

  Indeed, they filled me with happiness whenever I stopped to really look at them and to surrender to their fragrance, as though I still had the right to do so, as though I still were part of nature, as though I were still a mortal man.

  Louis was carefully and thoughtfully dressed, as he had been the night before. He wore a black linen suit of exquisite cut around the waist and the hips, an unusual thing with linen, and another pristine white shirt and dark silk tie. His hair was the usual mass of waves and curls, and his green eyes were uncommonly bright.

  He had fed already this evening, it was plain. And his pale skin was once more suffused with the carnal color of blood.

  I wondered at all this seductive attention to detail, but I liked it. It seemed to betoken some sort of inner peace, this fastidious dressing, or at least the cessation of inner despair.

  "Sit down there on the couch, if you will," I said.

  I took the chair which had been his last night.

  The little parlor surrounded us with its antique glass lamps, the vivid red of its Kirman carpet, and the glinting polish of its floor. I was vaguely aware of its fine French paintings. It seemed the smallest details were a solace.

  It struck me that this was the very room in which Claudia had tried to murder Lestat well over a century ago. But Lestat himself had recently reclaimed this space, and for several years we were wont to gather here, and so it did not seem to matter so very much.

  Quite suddenly I realized that I had to tell Louis that Merrick had gone to England. I had to tell him that which made me most uncomfortable, that the Talamasca, in the 18oos, had gathered his possessions from the Hotel SaintGabriel in Paris, which he himself had abandoned, as he'd described last night.

  "You knew of our presence in Paris?" he asked. I saw the blood flash in his cheeks.

  I reflected for a long moment before answering.

  "We didn't really know," I said. "Oh, we knew of the Th¨¦aeatre des Vampires, yes, and we knew that the players weren't human. As for you and Claudia, it was more or less the supposition of a lone investigator that you were connected. And when you abandoned everything in your hotel, when you were seen leaving Paris one evening in the company of another vampire, we moved in cautiously to purchase all that you'd left behind. "

  He accepted this quietly. Then he spoke up.

  "Why did you never try to harm or expose the vampires of the theater?" he asked.

  "We would have been laughed at if we'd tried to expose them," I said. "Besides, that is simply not what we do. Louis, we've never really talked of the Talamasca. For me, it's like speaking of a country to which I've become a traitor. But surely you must understand, the Talamasca watches, truly watches, and counts its own survival over the centuries as its primary goal. "

  There was a brief pause. His face was composed and appeared only a little sad.

  "So Claudia's clothing, well, Merrick will have it when she returns. "

  "Insofar as we took ownership of it, yes. I myself am not certain what's in the vault. " I stopped. I had once brought Lestat a present from the vault. But I'd been a man then. I could not conceive of trying to rob the Talamasca of anything just now.

bsp; "I've often wondered about those archives," Louis said. Then again in the most tender voice: "I've never wanted to ask. It's Claudia I want to see, not those things which we left behind. "

  "I understand your meaning. "

  "But it counts for magic, doesn't it?" he asked.

  "Yes. You'll understand that better perhaps when I tell you about Merrick. "

  "What do you want me to know about Merrick?" he asked earnestly. "I'm eager to hear it. You told me last night about your first meeting. You told me how she'd showed you the daguerreotypes¡ª. "

  "Yes, that was the very first encounter. But there is much, much more. Remember what I said last night. Merrick is a magician of sorts, a witch, a veritable Medea, and we can be as overwhelmed by magic as any earthly creature can. "

  "My desires are singular and pure," Louis said. "I only want to see Claudia's ghost. "

  I couldn't help but smile. I think I wounded him. I was immediately sorry.

  "Surely you must recognize some danger is opening the way to the supernatural," I insisted. "But let me tell you what I know of Merrick, what I feel I can tell. "

  I began to recount to him my recollections in order.

  Only a few days after Merrick had come to Oak Haven, some twenty years ago, Aaron and I had set out with Merrick to drive to New Orleans and to visit Merrick's Great Nananne.

  My memories were vivid.

  The last cool days of spring had passed and we were plunged into a hot and damp weather, which, loving the tropics as I did, and do, had been very pleasing to me. I had no regrets about having left London at all.

  Merrick still had not revealed to us the day of Great Nananne's death as it had been confided to her by the old woman. And Aaron, though he'd been the personage in the dream who gave the fatal date to Great Nananne, had no knowledge whatever of this dream.

  Though Aaron had prepared me for the old section of New Orleans to which we were going, I had nevertheless been astonished to see the neighborhood of tumbledown houses of all different sizes and styles, steeped in its overgrown oleander, which bloomed profusely in the moist heat, and most surprised of all to come upon the old raised cottage of a house which belonged to Great Nananne.

  The day, as I've said, was close and warm, with violent and sudden showers of rain, and though I have been a vampire now for five years, I can vividly remember the sunshine coming through the rain to strike the narrow broken pavements, and everywhere the weeds rising out of gutters which were in fact no more than open ditches, and the snarls of oak and rain tree, and cottonwood, which sprang up all around us as we made our way to the residence which Merrick was now to leave behind.

  At last we came to a high iron picket fence, and a house much larger than those around it, and of much earlier date.

  It was one of those Louisiana houses which stands upon brick foundation post pillars of about five feet in height, with a central wooden stair rising to its front porch. A row of simple square pillars held up its Greek Revival porch roof, and the central door was not unlike the grander doors of Oak Haven in that it had a small fanlight intact above.

  Long windows went from floor to ceiling on the front of the house, but these were all pasted over with newspaper, which made the house look derelict and uninhabited. The yew trees, stretching their scrawny limbs to Heaven on either side of the front porch, added a note of grimness, and the front hall into which we entered was empty and shadowy, though it went clear through to an open door at the back. There were no stairs to the attic, and an attic there must have been, I conjectured, for the main body of the house had a deeply pitched roof. Beyond that rear open door all was tangled and green.

  The house was three rooms in depth from front to back, giving it six rooms in all on the main floor, and in the first of these, to the left of the hallway, we found Great Nananne, under a layer of handsewn quilts in an old plantation fourposter, without a canopy, of simple mahogany design. I say plantation bed when I refer to this species of furniture because the pieces are so huge, and so often crammed into small city rooms that one immediately envisions more space in the country for which this kind of furnishing must have been designed. Also, the mahogany posts, though artfully tapered, were otherwise plain.

  As I looked at the little woman, driedup upon the heavily stained pillow, her frame completely invisible beneath the worn quilts, I thought for a moment she was dead.

  In fact, I could have sworn by all I knew of spirits and humans that the dried little body in the bed was empty of its soul. Maybe she'd been dreaming of death and wanted it so badly she'd left her mortal coil for but a few moments.

  But when little Merrick stood in the doorway, Great Nananne came back, opening her small crinkled and yellow eyes. Her ancient skin had a beautiful gold color to it, faded though she must have been. Her nose was small and flat, and her mouth fixed in a smile. Her hair was wisps of gray.

  Electric lamps, quite shabby and makeshift, were the only illumination save for a wealth of candles on an immense nearby shrine. I could not quite make out the shrine, as it seemed shrouded in dimness, being against the papered shut windows of the front of the house. And the people drew my attention at first.

  Aaron brought up an old canebacked chair, to sit beside the woman in the bed.

  The bed reeked of sickness and urine.

  I saw that newspapers and large brilliantly colored Holy Pictures papered all of the decaying walls. Not a bit of plaster was left bare save for the ceiling, which was full of cracks and chipped paint and seemed a threat to us all. Only the side windows had their curtains, but much glass was broken out and here and there newspaper patches had been applied. Beyond loomed the eternal foliage.

  "We'll bring nurses for you, Great Nananne," said Aaron, in a kindly and sincere voice. "Forgive me that it took me so long to come. " He leant forward. "You must trust in me implicitly. We'll send for the nurses as soon as we leave you this afternoon. "

  "Come?" asked the old woman sunk down into the feather pillow. "Did I ever ask you¡ªeither of you¡ªto come?" She had no French accent. Her voice was shockingly ageless, low in pitch and strong. "Merrick, sit by me here for a little while, ch¨¦rie," she said. "Be still, Mr. Lightner. Nobody asked you to come. "

  Her arm rose and fell like a branch on the breeze, so lifeless in shape and color, fingers curled as they scratched at Merrick's dress.

  "See what Mr. Lightner bought for me, Great Nananne?" said Merrick beside her, gesturing with open arms as she looked down on her new clothes.

  I had not noticed before that she was in Sunday Best, with a dress of white pique and black patent leather shoes. The little white socks looked incongruous on such a developed young woman, but then Aaron saw her completely as an innocent child.

  Merrick leant over and kissed the old woman's small head. "Don't you be afraid of anything on my account any longer," she said. "I'm home now with them, Great Nananne. "

  At that point, a priest came into the room, a tall sagging man as old as Nananne was, it seemed to me, slow moving and scrawny in his long black cassock, the thick leather belt drooping over shrunken bones, rosary beads knocking softly against his thigh.

  He seemed blind to our presence, only nodding at the old woman, and he slipped away without a word. As to what his feelings might have been about the shrine to the left of us, against the front wall of the house, I couldn't guess.

  I felt an instinctive wariness, and an apprehension that he might try to prevent us¡ªwith good reason¡ªfrom taking the child Merrick away.

  One never knew which priest might have heard of the Talamasca, which priest might have feared it or despised it, under the guidance of Rome. To those within the hierarchy of the Church, we were alien and mysterious. We were maverick and controversial. Claiming to be secular, yet ancient, we could never hope for the cooperation or the understanding of the Church of Rome.

  It was after this man disappeared, and as Aaron continued his polite and subdued conversation with t
he old woman, that I had a chance to view the shrine in full.

  It was built up of bricks, from the floor, in stair steps to a high wide altar where perhaps special offerings were placed. Huge plaster saints crowded the top of it in long rows to the left and right.

  At once I saw St. Peter, the Papa Legba of Haitian Voodoo, and a saint on a horse who appeared to be St. Barbara, standing in for Chango of Xango in Candomble, for whom we had always used St. George. The Virgin Mary was there in the form of Our Lady of Carmel, standing in for Ezilie, a goddess of Voodoo, with heaps of flowers at her feet and perhaps the most candles before her, all of them aflicker in their deep glasses as a breeze stirred the room.

  There stood St. Martin de Porres, the black saint of South America, with his broom in hand, and beside him, St. Patrick stood gazing down, his feet surrounded by fleeing snakes. All had their place in the underground religions which the slaves of the Americas had nourished for so long.

  There were all kinds of obscure little mementos on the altar before these statues, and the steps below were covered with various objects, along with plates of birdseed, grain, and old cooked food which had begun to rot and to smell.

  The more I studied the entire spectacle, the more I saw things, such as the awesome figure of the Black Madonna with the white Infant Jesus in her arms. There were many little sacks tied shut and kept there, and several expensivelooking cigars still in their wrapping, perhaps held for some future offering, I couldn't know for sure. At one end of the altar stood several bottles of rum.

  It was certainly one of the largest such altars I'd ever seen, and it did not surprise me that the ants had overrun some of the old food. It was a frightening and disturbing sight, infinitely more than Merrick's recent little makeshift offering in the hotel. Even my Candomble experiences in Brazil did not make me immune to the solemn and savage spectacle of it. On the contrary, I think these experiences in every regard make me more afraid.

  Perhaps without realizing I was doing it, I came deeper into the room, close to the altar, so that the woman and her sickbed were out of my sight, behind my back.

  Suddenly the voice of the woman in the bed startled me out of my studies.

  I turned to see that she had sat up, which seemed almost impossible due to her frailty, and that Merrick had adjusted her pillows so that she might rest in this position as she spoke.

  "Candomble priest," she said to me, "sacred to Oxal¨¢. " There it was, the very mention of my god.

  I was too astonished to respond.

  "I didn't see you in my dream, English man," she went on. "You've been in the jungles, you've hunted treasure. "

  "Treasure, Madam?" I responded, thinking only as quickly as I spoke. "Indeed not treasure in the conventional sense. No, never that at all. "

  "I follow my dreams," said the old woman, her eyes fixed on me in a manner that suggested menace, "and so I give you this child. But beware of her blood. She comes down from many magicians far stronger than you. "

  Once again I was amazed. I stood opposite her. Aaron had forsaken his chair to get out of the way.

  "Call up The Lonely Spirit, have you?" she asked me. "Did you frighten yourself in the jungles of Brazil?"

  It was quite impossible that this woman could have had this intelligence of me. Not even Aaron knew all of my story. I had always passed over my Candomble experiences as though they were slight.

  As for "The Lonely Spirit," of course I knew her meaning. When one calls The Lonely Spirit, one is calling some tortured soul, a soul in Purgatory, or earthbound in misery, to ask that soul for its help in reaching gods or spirits who are further on. It was an old legend. It was as old as magic under other names and in other lands.

  "Oh, yes, you are some scholar," said the old woman, smiling at me so that I could see her perfect false teeth, yellow as she was, her eyes seemingly more animate than before. "What is the state of your own soul?"

  "We are not here to deal with such a matter," I fired back, quite shaken. "You know I want to protect your godchild. Surely you see that in my heart. "

  "Yes, Candomble priest," she said again, "and you saw your ancestors when you looked into the chalice, didn't you?" She smiled at me. The low pitch of her voice was ominous. "And they told you to go home to England or you would lose your English soul. "

  All this was true and untrue. Suddenly I blurted out as much.

  "You know something but not everything," I declared. "One has to have a noble use for magic. Have you taught Merrick as much?" There was anger in my voice, which this old woman did not deserve. Was I jealous of her power suddenly? I couldn't control my tongue. "How has your magic brought you to this disaster!" I said, gesturing to the room about me. "Is this the place for a beautiful child?"

  At once Aaron begged me to be silent.

  Even the priest came forward and peered into my eyes. As if minding a child, he shook his head, frowning most sadly, and wagged his finger in my eye.

  The old woman laughed a short dry little laugh.

  "You find her beautiful, don't you English man," she said. "You English like children. "

  "Nothing could be further from the truth with me!" I declared, offended by her suggestion. "You don't believe what you're saying. You speak to dazzle others. You sent this girl unaccompanied to Aaron. " At once I regretted it. The priest would certainly come to object when it was time to take Merrick away.

  But I saw now he was too shocked by my audacity to protest it further.

  Poor Aaron was mortified. I was behaving like a beast.

  I had lost all my selfpossession and was angry with an old woman who was dying before my eyes.

  But when I looked at Merrick I saw nothing but a rather clever amusement in her expression, possibly even a little pride or triumph, and then she locked eyes with the old woman and there was some silent message exchanged there for which all assembled would have to wait.

  "You'll take care of my godchild, I know it," said the old woman. Her wrinkled lids came down over her eyes. I saw her chest heave beneath the white flannel nightgown, and her hand trembled loosely on the quilt. "You won't be afraid of what she can do. "

  "No, never will I be afraid," I said reverently, eager to make the peace. I drew closer to the bed. "She's safe from everyone with us, Madam," I said. "Why do you try to frighten me?"

  It didn't seem she could open her eyes. Finally she did and once again she looked directly at me.

  "I'm in peace here, David Talbot," she said. I could not recall anyone having given her my name. "I'm as I want to be, and as for this child, she was always happy here. There are many rooms to this house. "

  "I'm sorry for what I said to you," I answered quickly. "I had no right. " I meant it from my heart.

  She gave a rattling sigh as she looked at the ceiling.

  "I'm in pain now," she said. "I want to die. I'm in pain all the time. You'd think I could stop it, that I had charms that could stop it. I have charms for others, but for me, who can work the magic? Besides, the time has come, and it's come in its own fashion. I've lived a hundred years. "

  "I don't doubt you," I said, violently disturbed by her mention of her pain and her obvious veracity. "Please be assured you can leave Merrick with me. "

  "We'll bring you nurses," said Aaron. It was Aaron's way to pursue the practical, to deal with what could be done. "We'll see to it that a doctor comes this very afternoon. You mustn't be in pain, it isn't necessary. Let me go now to make the proper calls. I won't be long. "

  "No, no strangers in my house," she said as she looked at him and then up at me. "Take my godchild, both of you. Take her and take all that I have in this house. Tell them, Merrick, everything that I told you. Tell them all your uncles taught, and your aunts, and your greatgrandmothers. This one, this tall one with the dark hair¡ª," she looked at me, "¡ªhe knows about the treasures you have from Cold Sandra, you trust in him. Tell him about Honey in the Sunshine. Sometimes I feel bad spirits around you, Merrick
. . . . " She looked at me. "You keep the bad spirits from her, English man. You know the magic. I see now the meaning of my dream. "

  "Honey in the Sunshine, what does it mean?" I asked her.

  She shut her eyes bitterly and tightened her lips. It was extraordinarily expressive of pain. Merrick appeared to shudder, and for the first time to be about to cry.

  "Don't you worry, Merrick," said the old woman finally. She pointed with her finger, but then dropped her hand again as if she was too weak to go on.

  I tried suddenly with all of my might and main to penetrate the old woman's thoughts. But nothing came of it, except perhaps that I startled her when she should have been in peace.

  Quickly I tried to make up for my little blunder.

  "Have faith in us, Madam," I said again adamantly. "You sent Merrick on the right path. "

  The old woman shook her head.

  "You think magic is simple," the old woman whispered. Once more our eyes met. "You think it's something you can leave behind when you cross an ocean. You think les myst¨¨res aren't real. "

  "No, I don't. "

  Once again she laughed, a low and mocking laugh.

  "You never saw their full power, English man," she said. "You made things shake and shiver, but that was all. You were a stranger in a strange land with your Candomble. You forgot Oxal¨¢, but he never forgot you. "

  I was fast losing all composure.

  She closed her eyes and her fingers curled around Merrick's smallboned wrist. I heard the rattle of the priest's rosary, and then came the fragrance of freshbrewed coffee mingled with the sweetness of newly falling rain.

  It was an overwhelming and soothing moment¡ªthe close moist air of the New Orleans springtime, the sweetness of the rain coming down all around us, and the soft murmur of thunder far off to the right. I could smell the candle wax and the flowers of the shrine, and then again there came the human scents of the bed. It seemed a perfect harmony suddenly, even those fragrances which we condemn as sour and bad.

  The old woman had indeed come to her final hour and it was only natural, this bouquet of fragrances. We must penetrate it and see her and love her. That was what had to be done.

  "Ah, you hear it, that thunder?" asked Great Nananne. Once again her little eyes flashed to me. She said, "I'm going home. "

  Now, Merrick was truly frightened. Her eyes were wild and I could see her hand shaking. In fact, as she searched the old woman's face she appeared terrified.

  The old woman's eyes rolled and she appeared to arch her back against the pillow, but the quilts seemed far too heavy for her to gain the space she craved.

  What were we to do? A person can take an age to die, or die in one second. I was afraid too.

  The priest came in and moved ahead of us so that he could look down at her face. His hand was easily as withered as her own.

  "Talamasca," the old woman whispered. "Talamasca, take my child. Talamasca, keep my child. "

  I thought I myself would give way to tears. I had been at many a deathbed. It is never easy but there is something crazily exciting about it, some way in which the total fear of death kindles excitement, as if a battle were beginning, when indeed, it is coming to an end.

  "Talamasca," she said again.

  Surely, the priest heard her. But the priest paid no attention at all. His mind was not difficult to penetrate. He was only here to give the rites to a woman he knew and respected. The shrine was no shock to him.

  "God's waiting on you, Great Nananne," said the priest softly, in a strong local accent, rather rural sounding. "God's waiting and maybe Honey in the Sunshine and Cold Sandra are there too. "

  "Cold Sandra," said the old woman with a long sigh and then an unintentional hiss. "Cold Sandra," she repeated as though praying, "Honey in the Sunshine . . . in God's hands. "

  This was violently disturbing to Merrick. It was plain from her face. Merrick began to cry. This girl, who had seemed so strong throughout, now appeared quite fragile, as if her heart would be crushed.

  The old woman wasn't finished.

  "Don't you spend your time looking for Cold Sandra," she said, "or Honey in the Sunshine, either. " She gripped Merrick's wrist all the harder. "You leave those two to me. That's a woman who left her baby for a man, Cold Sandra. Don't you cry for Cold Sandra. You keep your candles burning for the others. You cry for me. "

  Merrick was distraught. She was crying without a sound. She bent down and laid her head on the pillow beside that of the old woman, and the old woman wrapped her withered arm around the child's shoulders, which appeared to droop.

  "That's my baby," she said, "my baby girl. Don't you cry over Cold Sandra. Cold Sandra took Honey in the Sunshine with her on the road to Hell. "

  The priest moved away from the bed. He had begun to pray in a soft voice, the Hail Mary in English, and when he came to the words "Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, " he timidly and gently raised his voice.

  "I'll tell you if I find those two," said Great Nananne in a murmur. "St. Peter, let me through the gates. St. Peter, let me through. "

  I knew she was calling on Papa Legba. Possibly they were one and the same for her, Papa Legba and St. Peter. The priest probably knew all about it too.

  The priest drew near again. Aaron stood back out of respect. Merrick remained with her head down on the pillow, her face buried in it, her right hand against the old woman's cheek.

  The priest raised his hands to give the blessing in Latin, In Nomine Patris, et filie, et spiritu sanctum, Amen.

  I felt I should leave, out of decency, but Aaron gave me no signal. What right had I to remain?

  I looked again at the gruesome altar, and at the huge statue of St. Peter with his Heavenly keys, very like the one I was to see years later¡ªonly a night ago¡ªin Merrick's hotel suite.

  I stepped back and into the hallway. I looked out the back door, though why, I was uncertain, perhaps to see the foliage darkening as the rain fell. My heart was pounding. The big noisy wet drops came in the back door and in the front, and left their mark on the soiled old wooden floor.

  I heard Merrick crying aloud. Time stood still, as it can on a warm afternoon in New Orleans. Suddenly, Merrick cried all the more miserably, and Aaron had put his arm around her.

  It had been an awakening, to realize that the old woman in the bed had died.

  I was stunned. Having known her for less than an hour, having heard her revelations, I was stunned. I could make no sense of her powers, except that too much of my Talamasca experience had been academic, and, faced with true magic, I was as easily shaken as anyone else.

  We remained near the door of the bedroom for three quarters of an hour. It seemed that the neighbors wanted to come in.

  Merrick was at first against it, leaning against Aaron and crying that she'd never find Cold Sandra, and Cold Sandra ought to have come home.

  The child's palpable misery was dreadful to us all, and the priest again and again came to Merrick and kissed her and patted her.

  At last, two young women of color, both very fair and with obvious signs of African blood, came in to attend to the body in the bed. One woman took Merrick in hand and told her to close her godmother's eyes. I marveled at these women. It wasn't only their gorgeous colored skin or their pale eyes. It was their oldfashioned formal manner, the way they were dressed in shirtwaist dresses of silk, with jewelry, as if to come calling, and the importance of this little ceremony in their minds.

  Merrick went to the bed and did her duty with two fingers of her right hand. Aaron came to stand beside me in the hall.

  Merrick came out, asked Aaron through her sobs if he would wait while the women cleaned up Great Nananne and changed the bed, and of course Aaron told her that we would do as she wished.

  We went into a rather formal parlor on the other side of the hall. The old woman's proud statements came back to me. This parlor opened by means of an arch into a large dining room, and b
oth rooms contained many fine and costly things.

  There were huge mirrors over the fireplaces, and these had their heavily carved white marble mantels; and the furniture, of rich mahogany, would fetch a good price.

  Darkened paintings of saints hung here and there. The huge china cabinet was crowded with old patterned bone china; and there were a few huge lamps with dim bulbs beneath dusty shades.

  It would have been rather comfortable except it was suffocatingly hot, and though there were broken windowpanes, only the dampness seemed to penetrate the dusty shadows where we sat down.

  At once, a young woman, another rather exotically colored creature, lovely and as primly dressed as the others, came in to cover the mirrors. She had a great deal of folded black cloth with her, and a small ladder. Aaron and I did what we could to assist.

  After that she closed the keyboard of an old upright piano which I had not even noticed. Then she went to a large casement clock in the comer, opened the glass, and stopped the hands. I heard the ticking for the first time only when it actually ceased.

  A large crowd of people, black, white, and of different racial blending, gathered before the house.

  At last the mourners were allowed to come in and there was a very long procession, during which time Aaron and I retired to the sidewalk, as it was perfectly plain that Merrick who had taken up a position at the head of the bed, was no longer so badly shaken, only merely terribly sad.

  People stepped into the room, as far as the foot of the bed, and then went out the back door of the house, reappearing again along the side as they opened a small secondary gate to the street.

  I remember being very impressed by the sobriety and silence that reigned, and being somewhat surprised as cars began to arrive and smartly dressed people¡ªagain, of both races, and of obvious mixture¡ªwent up the steps.

  My clothes became uncomfortably limp and sticky from the drowsy heat, and several times I went inside the house to assure myself that Merrick was all right. Several window air conditioning units in the bedroom, living room, and dining room had been pressed into service, and the rooms were growing cool.

  It was on my third visit that I realized a collection was being taken for the funeral of Great Nananne. Indeed a china bowl on the altar was overflowing with twentydollar bills.

  As for Merrick, her face showed little or no emotion as she gave a little nod to each person who came to call. Yet she was obviously numb and miserable.

  Hour followed hour. Still people came, drifting in and out in the same respectful silence, only giving in to conversation when they were well away from the house.

  I could hear the more formally dressed women of color speaking to one another with the most genteel southern accents, very far from the African which I have heard.

  Aaron assured me in a whisper that this was hardly typical of funeral affairs in New Orleans. The crowd was altogether different. It was too quiet.

  I could sense the problem with no difficulty. People had been afraid of Great Nananne. People were afraid of Merrick. People made sure that Merrick saw them. People left lots of twentydollar bills. There wasn't to be a funeral mass, and people didn't know what to make of it. People thought there ought to be a mass, but Merrick said Great Nananne herself had said no.

  At last, as we stood in the alleyway once more, enjoying our cigarettes, I saw a look of concern on Aaron's face. He made a very subtle gesture, that I was to look at an expensive car which had just come to the curb.

  Several obviously white persons got out of the car¡ªa rather handsome young man, and an austere woman with a pair of wirerimmed glasses on her nose. They went directly up the steps, deliberately avoiding the gaze of those who hung about.

  "Those are white Mayfairs," said Aaron under his breath. "I can't be noticed here. " Together we moved deeper into the alleyway and towards the back of the house. Finally, when the way became impassable due to the magnificent wisteria, we stopped.

  "But what does it mean?" I asked. "The white Mayfairs. Why have they come?"

  "Obviously, they feel some obligation," said Aaron in a whisper. "Truly, David, you must be quiet. There isn't a member of the family who doesn't have some psychic power. You know I've tried in vain to make contact. I don't want us to be seen here. "

  "But who are they?" I pressed. I knew a voluminous file existed on the Mayfair Witches. I knew Aaron had been assigned to it for years. Yes, I knew, but for me as Superior General it was one story among thousands.

  And the exotic climate, the strange old house, the clairvoyance of the old woman, the rising weeds, and the sunshiney rainfall had all gone to my head. I was as stimulated as if we were seeing ghosts.

  "The family lawyers," he said in a hushed voice, trying to hide his annoyance with me. "Lauren Mayfair and young Ryan Mayfair. They don't know anything, not about Voodoo or witches, here or uptown, but clearly they know the woman is related to them. They don't shirk a family responsibility, the Mayfairs, but I never expected to see them here. "

  At this juncture, as he cautioned me again to be quiet and stay out of the way, I heard Merrick speaking within. I drew close to the broken windows of the formal parlor. I couldn't make out what was being said.

  Aaron, too, was listening. Very shortly the white Mayfairs emerged from the house and went away in their new car.

  Only then did Aaron go up to the steps. The last of the mourners was just leaving. Those out on the pavement had already paid their respects. I followed Aaron into Great Nananne's room.

  "Those uptown Mayfairs," said Merrick in a low voice, "You saw them? They wanted to pay for everything. I told them we had plenty. Look there, we have thousands of dollars, and the undertaker is already coming. We'll wake the body tonight and tomorrow it will be buried. I'm hungry. I need something to eat. "

  Indeed the elderly undertaker was also a man of color, quite tall and completely bald. He arrived along with his rectangular basket in which he would place the body of Great Nananne.

  As for the house, it was now left to the undertaker's father, a very elderly colored man, much the same hue as Merrick, except that he had tight curly white hair. Both of the aforementioned old men had a distinguished air, and wore rather formal clothes, when one considered the monstrous heat.

  They also believed that there should be a Roman Catholic mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, but Merrick again explained that they didn't need that for Great Nananne.

  It was amazing how well this settled the whole affair.

  Now Merrick went to the bureau in Great Nananne's room and removed from the top drawer a bundle wrapped in white sheeting, and gestured for us to leave the house.

  Off we went to a restaurant, where Merrick, saying nothing, and keeping the bundle on her lap, devoured an enormous fried shrimp sandwich and two diet Cokes. She had obviously grown tired of crying, and had the weary sadeyed look of those who are deeply and irreparably hurt.

  The little restaurant struck me as exotic, having a filthy floor and obviously dirty tables, but the happiest waiters and waitresses as well as clientele.

  I was hypnotized by New Orleans, hypnotized by Merrick, though she was saying nothing; but little did I know that stranger things were yet to come.

  In a dream, we went back to Oak Haven, to bathe and to change for the wake. There was a young woman there, a good member of the Talamasca whom I shall not name for obvious reasons, who assisted Merrick and saw to it that she was turned out beautifully in a new navy blue dress and broadbrimmed straw hat. Aaron himself gave a quick buffing to her patent leather shoes. Merrick had a rosary with her and a Catholic prayer book with a pearl cover.

  But before she would have us return to New Orleans, she wanted to show us the contents of the bundle she had taken from the old woman's room.

  We were in the library, where I first met Merrick only a short time before. The Motherhouse was at supper, so we had the room entirely to ourselves, with no special request.

When she unwrapped the sheeting, I was astonished to see an ancient book or codex, with brilliant illustrations on its wooden cover, a thing in tatters, which Merrick handled as carefully as she could.

  "This is my book from Great Nananne," she said, looking at the thick volume with obvious respect. She let Aaron lift the book in its swaddling to the table under the light.

  Now vellum or parchment is the strongest material ever invented for books, and this one was clearly so old that it would never have survived had it been written on anything else. Indeed, the wooden cover was all but in pieces. Merrick herself took the initiative to move it to the side so that the title page of the book could be read.

  It was in Latin, and I translated it as instantly as any member of the Talamasca could do.








  Carefully lifting this page, which was bound as all the others were by three different ties of leather thong, Merrick revealed the first of many pages of magic spells, written in faded but clearly visible and very crowded Latin script.

  It was as old a book of magic as I have ever beheld, and of course its claim¡ªthe claim of its title page¡ªwas to the very earliest of all black magic ever known since the time of The Flood.

  Indeed, I was more than familiar with the legends surrounding Noah, and his son, Ham, and the even earlier tale, that the Watcher Angels had taught magic to the Daughters of Men when they lay with them, as Genesis so states.

  Even the angel Memnoch, the seducer of Lestat, had revealed a version of this tale in his own fashion, that is, of being seduced during his earthly wanderings by a Daughter of Man. But of course I knew nothing of Memnoch back then.

  I wanted to be alone with this book! I wanted to read every syllable of it. I wanted to have our experts test its paper, its ink, as well as peruse its style.

  It will come as no surprise to most readers of my narrative that people exist who can tell the age of such a book at a glance. I was not one such person, but I believed firmly that what I held had been copied out in some monastery somewhere in Christendom, somewhere before William the Conqueror had ever come to the English shores.

  To put it more simply, the book was probably eighth or ninth century. And as I leant over to read the opening page I saw that it claimed to be a "faithful copy" of a much earlier text that had come down, of course, from Noah's son, Ham, himself.

  There were so many rich legends surrounding these names. But the marvelous thing was that this text belonged to Merrick and that she was revealing it to us.

  "This is my book," she said again. "And I know how to work the charms and spells in it. I know them all. "

  "But who taught you to read it?" I asked, unable to conceal my enthusiasm.

  "Matthew," she answered, "the man who took me and Cold Sandra to South America. He was so excited when he saw this book, and the others. Of course I could already read it a little, and Great Nananne could read every word. Matthew was the best of the men my mother ever brought home. Things were safe and cheerful when Matthew was with us. But we can't talk about these matters now. You have to let me keep my book. "

  "Amen, you shall," said Aaron quickly. I think he was afraid that I meant to spirit away the text but nothing of the sort was true. I wanted time with it, yes, but only when the child would permit.

  As for Merrick's mention of her mother, I had been more than curious. In fact, I felt we should question her on that point immediately, but Aaron shook his head sternly when I started to inquire.

  "Come on, let's us go back now," said Merrick. "The body will be laid out. "

  Leaving the precious book in Merrick's upstairs bedroom, back we went to the city of dreams once more.

  The body had been brought back in a dovegray casket lined in satin, and set upon a portable bier in the grim front parlor which I described before. By the light of numerous candles¡ªthe overhead chandelier was naked and harsh and therefore turned off¡ªthe room was almost beautiful, and Great Nananne was now dressed in a fine gown of white silk with tiny pink roses stitched to the collar, a favorite from her own chifforobe.

  A beautiful rosary of crystal beads was wound around her clasped fingers, and above her head, against the satin of the lid of the coffin, there hung a gold crucifix. A priedieu of red velvet, furnished no doubt by the undertaker, stood beside the coffin, and many came up to kneel there, to make the Sign of the Cross, and to pray.

  Once again there came hordes of people, and indeed they did tend to break into groups according to race, just as if someone had commanded them to do so, the light of skin clumping together, as well as whites clumped with whites, and blacks with blacks.

  Since this time I have seen many situations in the city of New Orleans in which people selfsegregate according to color in a most marked way. But then, I didn't know the city. I knew only that the monstrous injustice of Legal Segregation no longer existed, and I marveled at the way color seemed to dominate the separation in this group.

  On tenterhooks, Aaron and I waited to be questioned about Merrick, and what was to happen to her, but no one spoke a single word. Indeed, people merely embraced Merrick, kissed her and whispered to her, and then went their way. Once more there was a bowl, and money was put in it, but for what I did not know. Probably for Merrick, because surely people knew she had no mother or father there.

  Only as we prepared to go to sleep on cots in a rear room (the body would remain exposed all night), which was totally unfurnished otherwise, did Merrick bring in the priest to speak to us, saying to him in very good and rapid French that we were her uncles and she would live with us.

  "So that is the story," I thought. We were uncles of Merrick. Merrick was definitely going away to school.

  "It's exactly what I meant to recommend to her," said Aaron. "I wonder how she knew it. I thought she would quarrel with me about such a change. "

  I didn't know what I thought. This sober, serious, and beautiful child disturbed me and attracted me. The whole spectacle made me doubt my mind.

  That night, we slept only fitfully. The cots were uncomfortable, the empty room was hot, and people were going and coming and forever whispering in the hall.

  Many times I went into the parlor to find Merrick dozing quietly in her chair. The old priest himself went to sleep sometime near morning. I could see out the back door into a yard shrouded in shadow where distant candles or lamps flickered wildly. It was disturbing. I fell asleep while there were still a few stars in the sky.

  At last, there came the morning, and it was time for the funeral service to begin.

  The priest appeared in the proper vestments, and with his altar boy, and intoned the prayers which the entire crowd seemed to know. The English language service, for that is what it was, was no less awe inspiring than the old Latin Rite, which had been cast aside. The coffin was closed.

  Merrick began to shake all over and then to sob. It was a dreadful thing to behold. She had pushed away her straw hat, and her head was bare. She began to sob louder and louder. Several welldressed women of color gathered around her and escorted her down the front steps. They rubbed her arms vigorously and wiped her forehead. Her sobs came like hiccups. The women cooed to her and kissed her. At one point Merrick let out a scream.

  To see this composed little girl now near hysterics wrenched my heart.

  They all but carried her to the funeral service limousine. The coffin came behind her, accompanied by solemn pallbearers to the hearse, and then off to the cemetery we rode, Aaron and I in the Talamasca car, uncomfortably separated from Merrick but resigned that it was for the best.

  The sorrowful theatricality was not diminished as the rain came steadily down upon us, and the body of Great Nananne was carried through the wildly overgrown path of St. Louis No. 1 amid high marble
tombs with pointed roofs, to be placed in an ovenlike vault of a threestory grave.

  The mosquitoes were almost unbearable. The weeds seemed alive with invisible insects, and Merrick, at the sight of the coffin being put in its place, screamed again.

  Once more the genteel women rubbed her arms and wiped her head, and kissed her cheeks.

  Then Merrick let out a terrible cry in French.

  "Where are you, Cold Sandra, where are you, Honey in the Sunshine? Why didn't you come home!"

  There were rosary beads aplenty, and people praying aloud, as Merrick leant against the grave, with her right hand on the exposed coffin.

  Finally, having spent herself for the moment, she grew quiet and turned and moved decisively, with the help of the women, towards Aaron and me. As the women patted her, she threw her arms around Aaron and buried her head in his neck.

  I could see nothing of the young woman in her now. I felt utter compassion for her. I felt the Talamasca must embrace her with every conceivable element of fantasy that she should ever desire.

  The priest meanwhile insisted the cemetery attendants bolt the stone into place NOW, which caused some argument, but eventually this did happen, the stone thereby sealing up the little grave slot and the coffin now officially removed from touch or view.

  I remember taking out my handkerchief and wiping my eyes.

  Aaron stroked Merrick's long brown hair and told her in French that Great Nananne had lived a marvelous and long life, and that her one deathbed wish¡ªthat Merrick be safe¡ªhad been fulfilled.

  Merrick lifted her head and uttered only one sentence. "Cold Sandra should have come. " I remember it because when she said it several of the onlookers shook their heads and exchanged condemnatory glances with one another.

  I felt rather helpless. I studied the faces of the men and women around me. I saw some of the blackest people of African blood I have ever beheld in America, and some of the lightest as well. I saw people of extraordinary beauty and others who were merely simple. Almost no one was ordinary, as we understand that word. It seemed quite impossible to guess the lineage or racial history of anyone I saw.

  But none of these people were close to Merrick. Except for Aaron and for me, she was basically alone. The welldressed genteel women had done their duty, but they really did not know her. That was plain. And they were happy for her that she had two rich uncles who were there to take her away.

  As for the "white Mayfairs" whom Aaron had spotted yesterday, none had appeared. This was "great luck," according to Aaron. If they had known a Mayfair child was friendless in the wide world, they would have insisted upon filling the need. Indeed, I realize now, they had not been at the wake, either. They had done their duty, Merrick had told them something satisfactory, and they had gone their way.

  Now it was back towards the old house.

  A truck from Oak Haven was already waiting for the transport of Merrick's possessions. Merrick had no intention of leaving her aunt's dwelling without everything that was hers.

  Sometime or other before we reached the house, Merrick stopped crying, and a somber expression settled over her features which I have seen many times.

  "Cold Sandra doesn't know," she said suddenly without preamble. The car moved sluggishly through the soft rain. "If she knew, she would have come. "

  "She is your mother?" Aaron asked reverently.

  Merrick nodded. "That whats she always said," she answered, and she broke into a fairly playful smile. She shook her head and looked out the car window. "Oh, don't you worry about it, Mr. Lightner," she said. "Cold Sandra didn't really leave me. She went off and just didn't come back. "

  That seemed to make perfect sense at the moment, perhaps only because I wanted it to make sense, so that Merrick would not be deeply hurt by some more commanding truth.

  "When was the last time you saw her?" Aaron ventured.

  "When I was ten years old and we came back from South America. When Matthew was still alive. You have to understand Cold Sandra. She was the only one of twelve children who didn't pass. "

  "Didn't pass?" asked Aaron.

  "For white," I said before I could stop myself.

  Once again, Merrick smiled.

  "Ah, I see," said Aaron.

  "She's beautiful," said Merrick, "no one could ever say she wasn't, and she could fix any man she wanted. They never got away. "

  "Fix?" asked Aaron.

  "To fix with a spell," I said under my breath.

  Again, Merrick smiled at me.

  "Ah, I see," said Aaron again.

  "My grandfather, when he saw how tan my mother was, he said that wasn't his child, and my grandmother, she came and dumped Cold Sandra on Great Nananne's doorstep. Her sisters and brothers, they all married white people. 'Course my grandfather was a white man too. Chicago is where they are all are. That man who was Cold Sandra's father, he owned a jazz club up in Chicago. When people like Chicago and New York, they don't want to stay down here anymore. Myself, I didn't like either one. "

  "You mean you've traveled there?" I asked.

  "Oh, yes, I went with Cold Sandra," she said. " 'Course we didn't see those white people. But we did look them up in the book. Cold Sandra wanted to set eyes on her mother, she said, but not to talk to her. And who knows, maybe she did her bad magic. She might have done that to all of them. Cold Sandra was so afraid of flying to Chicago, but she was more afraid of driving up there too. And drowning? She had nightmares about drowning. She wouldn't drive across the Causeway for anything in this world. Afraid of the lake like it was going to get her. She was so afraid of so many things. " She broke off. Her face went blank. Then, with a small touch of a frown, she went on:

  "I don't remember liking Chicago very much. New York had no trees that I ever saw. I couldn't wait to come back home. Cold Sandra, she loved New Orleans too. She always came back, until the last time. "

  "Was she a smart woman, your mother?" I asked. "Was she bright the way you are?"

  This gave her pause for thought.

  "She's got no education," said Merrick. "She doesn't read books. I myself, I like to read. When you read you can learn things, you know. I read old magazines that people left lying around. One time I got stacks and stacks of Time magazine from some old house they were tearing down. I read everything I could in those magazines, I mean every one of them; I read about art and science and books and music and politics and every single thing till those magazines were falling apart. I read books from the library, from the grocery store racks; I read the newspaper. I read old prayer books. I've read books of magic. I have many books of magic that I haven't even showed you yet. "

  She gave a little shrug with her shoulders, looking small and weary but still the child in her puzzlement of all that had happened.

  "Cold Sandra wouldn't read anything," she said. "You'd never see Cold Sandra watching the six o'clock news. Great Nananne sent her to the nuns, she always said, but Cold Sandra misbehaved and they were always sending her home. Besides, Cold Sandra was plenty light enough to not like dark people herself, you know. You'd think she knew better, with her own father dumping her, but she did not. Fact is she was the color of an almond, if you see the picture. But she had those light yellow eyes, and that's a dead giveaway, those yellow eyes. She hated it when they started calling her Cold Sandra too. "

  "How did the nickname come about?" I asked. "Did the children start it?''

  We had almost reached our destination. I remember there was so much more I wanted to know about this strange society, so alien to what I knew. At that moment, I felt that my opportunities in Brazil had been largely wasted. The old woman's words had stung me to the heart.

  "No, it started right in our house," said Merrick. "That's the worst kind of nickname, I figure. When the neighbors and the children heard it, they said 'Your own Nananne calls you Cold Sandra. ' But it stuck on account of the things she did. She used all the magic to fix people, like I said. She put the Evil Eye o
n people. I saw her skin a black cat once and I never want to see that again. "

  I must have flinched because a tiny smile settled on her lips for a moment. Then she went on.

  "By the time I was six years old, she started calling herself Cold Sandra. She'd say to me, 'Merrick, you come here to Cold Sandra. ' I'd jump in her lap. "

  There was a slight break in her voice as she continued.

  "She was nothing like Great Nananne," Merrick said. "And she smoked all the time and she drank, and she was always restless, and when she drank she was mean. When Cold Sandra came home after being gone for a long time, Great Nananne would say, 'What's in your cold heart this time, Cold Sandra? What lies are you going to tell?'

  "Great Nananne used to say there was no time for black magic in this world. You could do all you had to do with good magic. Then Matthew came, and Cold Sandra was the happiest she'd ever been. "

  "Matthew," I said coaxingly, "the man who gave you the parchment book. "

  "He didn't give me that book, Mr. Talbot, he taught me to read it," she answered. "That book we already had. That book came from GreatOncle Vervain, who was a terrible Voodoo Man. They called him Dr. Vervain from one end of the city to the other. Everybody wanted his spells. That old man gave me lots of things before he passed on. He was Great Nananne's older brother. He was the first person I ever saw just up and die. He was sitting at the dining room table with the newspaper in his hand. "

  I had more questions on the tip of my tongue.

  In all of this long unfolding tale there had been no mention of that other name which Great Nananne had uttered: Honey in the Sunshine.

  But we had arrived at the old house. The afternoon sun was quite strong but the rain had thinned away.
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