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The short legs of the mulatto boy pedaled the
rickety bicycle southeasterly
down the bumpy, ballast-stoned streets of the French Quarter. A burlap bag,
full of fresh fetuses, sat loosely at the center of a chicken-wire basket tied
between handlebars. As the cobbled surface of Customhouse Street gave
way to the rocky dirt of the levee, the bicycle slowed and sudden turbulence
bounced the contents of Typhus' burlap sack. Easy does it, thought Typhus.
Should have tied those babies in, he knew, but Doctor Jack had run out of
twine. Simple problem, simple solution: Easy does it. That's all. See that?
Easy. The bouncing diminished accordingly and the bag did not jump, fall,
or spill. Typhus' children stayed with him.
Typhus Morningstar was only nine years old, but older of eye.
Old enough to have suffered some, but young enough to know there are
easy solutions to most types of suffering; solutions not too difficult to grasp
and quick enough to be done with if a person had half a mind to. Typhus
often considered the possibility that when a boy or a girl reached a certain
age of maturity (or reached a certain physical height) that simplicity itself
became a thing not to be trusted. Pain for grownups is easy enough to
feel -- their problem lies in the whys, hows and what-nows that always
accompany such pain. Simple questions are bound to yield simple answers,
but also; a thing too easy often feels like a trick. Typhus hoped never to
reach the age (or height) of a person who could only trust the harder, more
complex ways of handling life's trials.
Typhus maneuvered up the side of the levee, then down the slope towards
the river, where the water's recurring kiss had hardened and smoothed the
sand into a firm, grainy mud. It was tougher to pedal here, but a smoother
ride. He felt safer on this side of the sloping embankment anyway, beyond
eye and earshot of the busybodies and shady nighttime characters who
roamed the Quarter when the sun was down and gone. It wasn't unheard
of (or even uncommon) for a tan-colored boy with a package to be stopped
by harbor police for no good reason at all.
Plus, it was so much prettier this near the river.
He followed the slow curve of the riverside until it ambled him up and onto
the boardwalk that ran alongside the docks. The only light here was of the
moon, bouncing off the water like a million lemon slices, shimmering and
shining but yielding no useful illumination. Smudge pots bobbed atop buoys
fashioned from beer barrels fifty yards offshore, warning ships of sandbanks
too high for safe docking. Thick, black smoke from burning pitch -- its
powerful smell equally loathsome to man and mosquito -- etched creases
in the coal sky, quietly proclaiming that there's always something blacker.
Only the fatigued crews of smaller vessels dared navigate between the
hidden sandbanks, but even these few vessels seemed void of living beings
tonight. Every porthole of every ship: black, black, black.
It was all so peaceful and still here.
Typhus loved his midnight bicycle rides. The sound of the water, the feel of
night air against his skin, and the acrid smell of burning tar; it all conspired
into a comforting sense of oneness with his father's God. And that's all his
child's heart had ever really pined for. Not much else, anyway.
A block or so ahead, the shadow of a man cast long from the end of a
narrow pier. The dark shape jerked grotesquely as Typhus rode past, sending
a sweeping wave of warm gray across the river's yellow-sparkly surface.
Typhus smiled and waved back to the elderly gentleman known to most
as Marcus Nobody Special. He wished he could stop and talk to Mr. Marcus,
but he had business to tend. Maybe after -- but most likely, he'd be too tired
to socialize after the errand. The business of the errand always took a lot
out of him.
Mr. Marcus, who'd been caretaker of the Girod Street potter's field since
before the War of the States, had either buried or overseen the burying of
just about every man, woman and child of color who'd died in the last fifty
years around here. Mr. Marcus was seventy if he was a day, but never
complained of aches or pains and always spent the nighttime fishing off the
longest pier at this particular stretch of levee. It seemed the old man never
rested or slept at all.
Most of the locals thought Marcus crazy. Some even thought him a ghost,
people saying he'd died, buried his own bones and come back; that he was
on some kind of mysterious mission to find a particular fish that would let
him go back to the grave in peace. That fish, they said, had stolen Marcus'
But Marcus seemed alive enough to Typhus. The old fellow ate, drank,
pissed, and laughed just like every other living person Typhus knew. So the
one part was a lie, but he knew the other was true enough: Mr. Marcus did
have a certain odd obsession with fish. Typhus had had occasion to sit
alongside the old man on a few of these queer fishing expeditions, had even
seen Marcus catch himself a perfectly good catfish now and then -- only to
throw it back in the water after a cursory examination. He'd simply shake
his head and apologize to the wiggly, fat thing, saying; "Sorry, old man,
didn't mean to interrupt yer nightswimmin'." Then he'd shake his head
some more and say to himself, or to whoever was standing nearby:
"Not my dern fish. Not my fish at all. But I'll get 'im. Yessir."
Typhus liked Mr. Marcus very much. His behavior might not have made the
plainest sort of sense, but Typhus understood as much as he needed to. No
use being greedy about understanding people other than yourself. He figured
people have a right to some privacy concerning the strange workings of their
Up ahead a hundred yards or so, Typhus spotted his destination. A morass
of banana plants interwoven with tall, swaying saw grass signaled the
presence of a large sandbank-turned-island just beyond the pier. People
sometimes used the little island for fishing during daytime hours, but at
night it was Typhus' spot.
Typhus slowed the bicycle.
Put one foot down, stopped the bike at a hard angle from the ground.
Looked around slow. No lights. No movement but wind and low waves.
No one around but Mr. Marcus looking for his elusive fish. Not another
Typhus got off the bike
and eased the burlap sack down to the moist wood
of the boardwalk. Rolled the bike into hiding behind some shaggy codgrass
near the pier. Slung the bag over his shoulder and lowered himself to the mud
of the island. Walked the forty yards or so it took to get to the other side,
the side that faced away from the pier and across the water. Out of sight,
even from Mr. Marcus.
On the other side of the
river was a place called Algiers. Typhus had never
been there, had never had good reason to go across. By day it looked just
like the pictures of Africa his Daddy liked to show him, but at night it was
inky and wonderful, a huge and glorious dead spot where glimmering lemon
slices stopped dancing. He took his shoes off and sat at the edge of the
island's shore with his feet in the water and the bag at his side. Chewed a
hunk of tobacco his father had given him that afternoon after chores.
Looked at Algiers and wondered, resting his hand on the bag, spitting
juice into the water.
After the tobacco in his cheek was reduced to the vile, juiceless lump it was
bound to become, he pulled it out of his mouth and winged it as far as he
could into the river, causing lemon slices to laugh and jump for joy. Typhus
slung the bag over his shoulder and waded into the water, clothes and all.
When the river came about knee deep he knelt down in it and brought the
little burlap bag before him. Lowered it into the water, not letting go, just
allowing the water to rush in through the thousand tiny holes that make
burlap what it is. Unknotted the top. Peeked in. Babies. Three tiny, unborn
children. Getting their first taste of nighttime air and warm, muddy river.
Steadying the bag on his
lap, Typhus reached a hand in and stroked the tiny
arms and neck of one of the children. Scooped his other hand inside the bag
and tenderly -- so tenderly -- separated the little creature from its brother and
sister. Let its tiny head bob at the water's surface. Its sweet face looked up
at the moon, bathed in lemon light. There was no pain in this face. No
tragedy or loss. But there was something missing.
Typhus' small hands looked huge holding the little creature. He held the baby
steady at the surface and gently cleansed him, let the water wash over its pink
and blue skin. Washing away the sticky blood and gelatin of birth.
Typhus Morningstar closed
his eyes. Smiled.
"Come on, little fella. Time to be on yer way." Opened his eyes again.
He held the baby's arms to its sides with the slightest pressure, his left hand
moving up and down along the child's right arm in a sweeping caress. Its
smooth skin yielded to his touch like clay, gradually melting to its side.
Seamlessly. He repeated this process with the left arm until both sides were
perfect match. Then Typhus focused on the legs, stroking and smoothing
the soft flesh into a single fat leg, his gentle hands molding the unborn child's
figure into a swooning teardrop. Next were the shoulders. So smooth. So
trusting.� Blending into the neck so perfectly. Exactly like wet clay.
Last was the head.
Nose and mouth extending into one. Lips disappearing. Eyelids vanishing
over wide, round, flat, staring eyes. Cheeks flattening. Smooth. Perfect.
Typhus held the newly shaped fetus underwater. As the head went under,
there appeared a moment's struggle -- but there's always a slight struggle in
waking moments, Typhus acknowledged. The legs, now a tail, thrashed
about. Mouth bubbling, horizontal slits opening where ears used to be, head
bucking. Typhus held fast, stroking the creature ever gently till it calmed.
Cooing. Said the thing that he always said at this point:
"They gave it to me, but I gave it back the best I could."
He sang as the baby finished its changing time, its water birth. The song he
sang was of a religious nature, but he placed no significance on the words.
He just thought it was a pretty tune, something sweet to sing as he delivered
his children. It put them at ease, or so it seemed.
Jesus, I'm troubled about my soul
Ride on, Jesus, come this way...
The tiny catfish was pure pink and rapidly calming now, its tail experimentally
flicking at the currents of the top waves with hungry curiosity. With a kind
It was time.
Typhus let go. A tear rolled down his cheek. It was always hard to let the
Swimming now. Towards Algiers. Disappearing from sight. Beneath sparkly
slivers of yellow light.
Troubled about my soul...
Again, and with great love, Typhus Morningstar reached into the burlap bag.
A light drizzle began to fall.
Copyright 2008 by Louis Maistros