Casting Call

 

 

 

Sometimes, I forget how it happened…the rush of being swept away by characters that didn’t exist until the moment they stepped out of the smoke and took the stage.

Three years ago this month, in a January darkened by the aftermath of a different storm, the first story was born.

It was intense, exhausting, addictive, and I’ve discovered…incredibly elusive. The newest cast members have a mind of their own.

While I wait, my mind wanders…to stained glass windows and dangling shutters that framed strange faces…along alleys lined with crooked doorways, when haunting footsteps echoed next to mine. Back to the shadowy labyrinth where I met the monsters…

A doomed commander, blessed with the heart of a savior,

A blood slave, hiding her exotic appetite,

A perfect prince, arrogant and viciously flawed,

A trained healer, born to be a killer,

A legendary warrior, incapable of simple trust,

A second son, unwilling to be held hostage,

A brilliant politician, searching for courage to love,

A city behind walls, glittering and moody, ravaged and reborn,

And a fledgling nurse with the soul of an angel, carrying a spirit fierce enough to make them all family.

La nuit sans fin…

 

Bienvenue

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All my families love Christmas.

As a little girl from New York, I remember a tree so tall it rivaled the Manhattan skyscrapers. My mother decorated every inch of our little apartment and the aroma of her cooking wafted through the windows and lured crowds from blocks away.

Of course, coven life was different but Christmas was remarkably the same. Peace, love and hospitality that bridged species and set ancient vendettas to rest for one sparkling night.

Duke Banitierres’ mission for the season was to surround himself with as much family as possible, and mend the broken pieces of their unconventional souls in the warmth of his home.

 The first weeks of December were filled with shopping in New Orleans but holiday central was at the plantation, sixty miles up the Mississippi River. Every room had its own tree, trimmed in a unique theme. For a week of nights we exchanged gifts, in the grand parlor, swamped in the glorious mess of wrapping paper, ribbons and bows.

On Christmas Eve, all roads led to Normandie Hall. One candle in the window, turned into a candle in every window.

Family and friends from around the globe, some who never attended a party or ceremony all year, always found their way through the arches of the white mansion. String quartets, brass bands and piano artisans took turns serenading a celebration that didn’t end until the sun came up.

Now, our Highland Christmas is traditional and austere. Bonfires and bagpipes on the lonely moor, a simple tree with white lights and a twinkling star; the beacon that has welcomed generations home for centuries.

Joyeux Noel

Hear My Prayer…

 

In the dead of night, on the year’s longest night.

Decades ago I saw this castle for the first time, spires soaring into the jeweled winter sky.

 On this night, when drums of darkness triumph over the sun, our coven is still celebrating Nightside Mass around the corner.

A decadent party for them…pure torture for me.

A festive crowd, with a dismal vacancy.

My footsteps on these checkered tiles should be the miracle of a lifetime.  

Forbidden spells have been cast.

Instead it’s my desperate cry for help.

Obscene ransoms paid.

My fingers squeeze the offerings jammed in my pockets.

Hallowed doors click shut.

No turning back now.

Stone cherubs flash impossible smiles and flags flutter in dead-still air.

Candles spark to pale, blue life as I pass.

No thunder claps.

Flames flare to a sapphire burn when I kneel in front of the altar.

No bolts of lightning. Yet.

In my left hand, a crimson rose. In my right, a string of flawless diamonds.

Black wisps of smoke flash across stained glass.

I offer my prayer, to anyone willing to listen.

Silence, broken only by rustling in empty pews.

The love of my life is missing.

The eternal, binding ceremony is mere weeks away.

Gone, in search of answers to ancient puzzles.

In the dead of night, on this sacred night,

I beg you, my ancestors…help me bring him home.

 

That one drew blood…

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How did I get here?

Today started as a joyful blur. From an early morning takeoff in the frosty northeast to wheels down in the sultry mist, I couldn’t wait to fill my lungs with New Orleans air and feel home vibrate beneath my feet.

Follow the ritual.

First steps, choreographed decades ago, have grown more complex with each visit. Whether it’s an extra block upriver, an unplanned turn to browse a gallery, glimpsing a favorite fountain through iron lace, or stopping to stare at the newest café menu…the potholes never change and every walk ends in the same place.

Café-au-lait in a paper cup is delicious.

Standing on the levee and watching the mighty Mississippi swirl her way to the Gulf, opens history’s treasure chest. Every time I turn back to see the glory of Jackson Square, I take a picture. It’s 2015 and I’ve got a computer full of digital images along a box of snapshots, frayed and worn at the edges. But, the most cherished memories were made with my human eyes. Back when life was innocent—before the trip and the accident. Before the change.

My hands are tingling.

The walk back through town was haphazard and impulsive. Chasing snippets of melody, following whiffs of fragrance down crooked alleys and peeking through stained glass windows…again, it ended where it always does.

My sanctuary.

Stepping through the scrolled gate delivered me from the Quarter’s worship of the preposterous, into a veiled oasis. Gurgling water and flickering candles, delicately powerful enough to soothe monsters.

The flagstones feel like ice under my back.

The trail of blood was a surprise—old and new. Pools of rusty liquid seeping into ground, mingling with the fresh life dripping from my fingertips.

Was I bitten or stung?

Stone goblins spun like drunken puzzles pieces, their cracks and splinters healing as though time was speeding backwards. Vines raced across the walls like warped vipers. A distant clock chimed twice, choked and started ringing at random intervals.

The damn time.

I dragged my watch in front of my eyes long enough to see hands whirling in both directions.

How did I forget the cursed hour?

My courtyard full of flowers exploded in glitter and ash.

Just one hour.

Sapphire blooms danced around my face. Petals baring fangs.

That one that drew blood.

Craving

 

The wilted crowd dwindled as party-goers stumbled into the darkness, hurried home or hailed cabs. Only the drunkest were brave enough to stroll the streets, along with those who had nothing to fear from ordinary predators.

A man with jet-black hair loosened his silk tie and slowed his step in the middle of the sidewalk.

“Stop…stopping.” Steven crashed into him and bounced off as if he hit a steel wall.

The dark man’s eyes glazed over as he stared past a striped awning and into the soft light of the all-night kitchen.

“What’s wrong?” A young woman ran her hand over his midnight blue suit.

“I miss this.” He inhaled the aroma of coffee and fried oil. “So much it hurts.”

“Then quit breathing, fool.” Steven tried to pull the woman away. “When’s your boyfriend going to learn—can’t have luxuries from both worlds.”

“Not necessarily true.” She tapped her chin. “There’s a compromise.”

“At least the take-out line isn’t hideous—” Steven stepped over stains on the concrete and shuddered. “Mercy, this needs to be hosed down.”

“We’ll sit.” The woman said, pulling her boyfriend along as he tilted his head at the clink of spoons on white china.

“You’ve got to be joking.” Steven pointed to the disarray of tables and chairs. “To sip black coffee?”

“Like old times.” She pushed past him and shot a look over her shoulder. “Please?”

“I’m overdressed for this…a bit like that filthy bar crawl your forced me to endure, so we could hear rock music that made my ears bleed.” Steven whipped the silk square out of his lapel pocket. “Doesn’t this ensemble just scream smoky jazz club?”

“Screams something.” The man’s eyes wandered up a waitress’s arm as she poured coffee. He lingered on the pulse of her neck.

“You’ve had plenty of that tonight.” The woman snapped her fingers in front of his face and pushed a plate of powdered sugar across the table. “Try a different treat.”

The man dropped a pinch of sugar on his tongue. “It’s safe—for us, I mean?”

“Bit juvenile.” Steven rolled his eyes. “But, won’t kill you.”

The woman dropped her head to the table when her boyfriend smashed the plate into his own face.

“That man,” Steven poked her shoulder and waved away a blizzard of powder. “All yours. My hand to—”

“If you say God,” The man licked sugar off his knuckles. “I’ll break your scrawny neck.”

Steven raised his hand next to his face, straightening one finger at a time. “—to whoever’s in charge of this debacle.”

One Endless Note

Usually I agonize over my blog posts to make them perfect, lyrical masterpieces. In these days leading up to the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, all the pretty words have abandoned me.

Should I talk about it at all? Being quiet might be easier…but it feels wrong. I need to say something.

Those scary hours are jumbled in my head, fuzzy memories that still feel like yesterday. I was home in New Jersey, working nights and following the storm on every TV in the Intensive Care Unit. Most of my family was in New Orleans for Tulane move-in and a convention at the Superdome. I fell asleep the next morning relieved that they had all evacuated—caught one of the last planes out or took their rental car and drove east.

I woke to catastrophic images that are still seared in my mind. Precious life, love and history, stolen by the flood.

In the heartbreaking days afterward, I learned a lot about people I thought I knew. Very few “friends” here shared my grief. Some of the stupid comments I heard….

            “Why do you care about a city thousands of miles away? Isn’t everything that flooded a slum anyway? Can’t you just vacation somewhere else? Who builds a city below sea-level?”

And then, the most idiotic comment of them all…

“I think New Orleans needs to go bye-bye.”

In my entire life, I’ve never been so close to punching someone in the face.

Plenty of people shook my faith in human nature, but others lifted and restored it. Our friend Carol, drove a food truck around the parishes for weeks, feeding workers, recovery volunteers, and local residents just trying to survive. If we never told you, Carol, we are so very proud and thankful for your effort.

So, my husband Scott and I aren’t New Orleans residents.  Yet.  We may have fallen in love on vacation—so many do. For Scott it was 40+ years ago—getting up early and ordering coffee at Morning Call for his family. For me it was 20 years ago—whatever was in the air for my first breath, never let go. He wanted to rebuild with his hands. I wished I could help evacuate patients from the hospitals. We didn’t lose our home to the storm, but we felt sickeningly powerless and disconnected. How could we ever give back to a city that’s brought us such joy? Give back enough?

We went back the summer after the storm—before the cruise ships came back—while a lot of the restaurants and shops were still closed. We talked to every person, bought whatever caught our eye–enough to share with everyone at home.  We ate every breakfast at the Old Coffeepot on St. Peter St., because not much else was open and their omelettes are awesome. We searched for the shop that sold ceramic houses I collect and an artist that was my mother-in-law’s favorite. We rejoiced when we found them both.

If we ever complain that “the Quarter is so crowded”, we stop and remember when it was a ghost town and how desperately empty those streets felt without the music. Now, we embrace the crowds and (most of) the foolishness, because the alternative is unthinkable. Every chance we get, we introduce new people to New Orleans, bring them with us to visit and watch their eyes light up when they start to get “it”. That mission will go on forever.

I wrote Monsters and Angels as a distraction for my mind after Sandy caused so much destruction in New Jersey, but I set it in New Orleans.  My characters live there, my heart is there, my visits are more frequent—every few months. When it’s time to leave, Scott needs to pry my fingers off the airplane door so they can close it.

Last week, I heard Trombone Shorty play at a little theater in New Jersey. From the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s first song until the second line that closed the show, I let myself be spirited away. During one amazingly long note Shorty played…it went on for minutes…many, many minutes…it occurred to me. The first time I stepped onto New Orleans soil, I heard that note. Felt it in my soul. It started like a whisper, swelled into a symphony, flickered and almost died once—but it’s growing stronger again, every day.

One stirring, haunting, magically endless note.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So perfect, so tragic…

So Anne Marie, tell me about Monsters and Angels in one sentence.

How about one picture?

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“We don’t choose who we love.”

                        -Sorcha Alden

Getting Away With It

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Empty? Maybe.

Silent? Never.

Hands on the clock crawl to that moment when day gives way to sultry dusk and all souls stir in their tombs, destined for midnight’s wicked frenzy.

This air buzzes with history’s notes—flashy keyboards and wailing horns. Floor boards creak underfoot, worn thin by musicians and their dancers, nobles and their courts.

Dazzling lights of royalty fell dark only once, born again amidst sapphire flame and victory bells.

Every chance I get, I sneak in, close my eyes and remember the devilry and decadence, incense and absinthe. Precious memories of brothers and sisters, fast friends and young lovers, chasing their dreams and tempting fate in the Golden Age.

We got away with all of it…

S