Memento Mori

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17

I woke up to the first light of day. I couldn't remember falling asleep. Viola was nowhere in sight. As I went to leave the room, I saw a scribbled note hanging on the door:
Good morning.
Be ready by 9 a.m.
Nasim is going to pick
you up and show
you around the city.
See you tonight.
V.

I wandered around the massive home. Framed photographs lined the brick wall of the upstairs hall. Black and white photos. Sepia toning. Processed pictures. Polaroids. Digital.
Pictures of Viola at Neuschwanstein Castle, New York Harbor, Matterhorn, Red Square. She's posing with famous faces. Marie Curie. Tu Youyou. Billie Holiday. David Bowie. Marilyn Monroe.

A curio cabinet at the hall's end displayed primitive medical tools. Extractors with screw-like tips, curved knives, bellows connected to tubes. I was able to identify forceps and scalpels.
I immediately recognized a little, screw-shaped piece that sat next to an amputation saw. It was an 1800s mouth gag. It was used to keep patients' airways open after given anesthesia.
I was familiar with it because mom had found one at an antique shop. She thought it was an old, wooden screw for a yarn swift. She often practiced knitting. She was always determined to make weave scarfs or knitted coasters, but she just didn't have the patience to master the art of intertwining.
She was watching an antique appraisal show and a dealer revealed what the wooden screw-shaped oddity really was. Once she was aware, it became her disciplinary threat.
"Don't make me get the gag," she would say.

I explored the top floor. It smelt sweet and musky.
I entered the library. An African giraffe shoulder mount watched over the hand-carved wooden bookcase wall. Cobwebs were spun throughout the poorly lit area. Archives of medical history, eighteenth century manuscripts and occult science books packed the shelves. Some books were culture and travel literature. Some were familiar titles that stood out. Heart of Darkness. Lord of the Flies. Animal Farm. Slaughterhouse-Five.
An Encyclopedia on Disease sat on a round, wooden table next to a comb-back chair. I wondered if Viola had read each and every book in the room.
I left the library. The floorboards groaned and screeched from every step. I was drawn to the locked room. I could sense something. A darkness. It felt cold, lonely, and sad. It was secured with an old, mortise lock. I placed my ear against the natural wooden door. I heard a soft patter on the other side.
"Is someone there?" I asked.
The noise promptly stopped. Everything became quiet, as if the walls were listening. I had a sense of unease. I felt a prickling on the back of my neck.

I went downstairs. I was curious what Viola kept in the refrigerator. On the bottom shelf she stored metal bowls and whisks. Inside the bowls she stored large quantities of lipstick, nail polish, and eyeliner. Apparently keeping cosmetics in the fridge lengthens their life and protects them from bacteria.
The center shelf housed bouquets of dead flowers. Roses. Jasmine. Gardenia. Sweet Alyssum. Fresh cut flowers are kept in cold environments so they don't wilt. The bouquets on the center shelf were obviously long past their due.
The top shelf was loaded with plastic storage containers stained with a thick red liquid. It was emitting a sweet, putrid smell.
I opened the freezer. It was packed with frozen proportions wrapped in butcher paper.

I wasn't brave enough to look at the contents.

I could hear a loud, blaring horn. It was Nasim notifying me she had arrived. I went outside and got in the backseat of her cab.
"I'm not your chauffeuse, I'm your friend. Come sit up front with me," Nasim signaled a beckoning hand gesture.
I sat in the passenger seat.

Nasim's mother is an immigrant from Tehran, Iran, and is a retired epidemiologist. Her father is French Creole and worked as an information security analyst.
Nasim said her parents wanted her to be a neurosurgeon or an immigration lawyer but she always wanted to be in professional transportation.
"I love meeting people and I love this city," she avowed.
"What are we doing?" I asked.
"Do you believe in extrasensory perception?"
"I suppose. After meeting Viola, anything is possible."
"Do you like her? Viola?"
I felt a swoony sensation. I was reluctant to reply.
"She's very — unusual."
"She likes you. I've known her for eight years and I've never seen her gush over someone like she does for you."

I was flattered.

"How did you two meet?" I asked.
"I have a friend that works as a file room assistant at the National Register of Historic Places. She saw a property report of Viola's home and said my family's name was on the deed. I researched the last property holder. Viola Badeaux claimed ownership in 1920. My great, great, great aunt."
"Wait, Viola's your Aunt!?" I was astounded.
"My great, great, great aunt."
"Isn't that weird?" I asked.
"It's only as weird as you wanna make it. Here in New Orleans, we embrace weird."

We drove up Esplanade Avenue near the fairgrounds.
"Where did you say we were going?"
"I didn't," Nasim turned down Moss Street and followed the canal. "I'm going to introduce you to Lady Damballa Nibo, the greatest clairvoyant in New Orleans."
"And why are we going to a psychic?"
Nasim took a right on De Saix. A full size pickup cut us off and slammed on its brakes. Nasim's skilled driving allowed her to avoid an accident.
"Mother fucker," she scowled in the rear view mirror. "We are going to a psychic so I can know more about you."
We turned left a few blocks ahead. Nasim pulled over and parked the car.
"If you and V hook up, I need to make sure you're a good guy."

I'm not going to lie, I was uncomfortable.

We walked up to a beige brick, single family home. A small, stout woman greeted us at the door. She wore a colorful dress and a scarf wrapped around her head.
"I've been expecting you," she welcomed us inside.
I immediately noticed a sweet, minty odor. Her home was filled with unnecessary clutter. Old mail and newspapers crowded the tables. Boxes, books and clothing were scattered on the floor.
"Right this way!" She led us to a back room. We followed her path through the hoarded waste.
"She rarely does walk-ins. Usually she does readings over the phone," whispered Nasim.
I wasn't a bit surprised.
Lady Damballa opened a white door that led to her workplace. The room was a lot tidier than the rest of the house. She called it her sacred space. A large canopy tent sat in the center of the room. The tent was made from vintage fabrics, most being colorful African garments.
Inside the tent were four small accent tables. The tables were littered with peppermint and holy basil. Each table represented the elements. One table was painted red with a hand carved candle. On top of a blue one sat a bowl of water. Another was green with Aventurine crystals. The final one was purple with peacock feathers.
"Please have a seat." We sat at a round table in the center. It was covered with a bright, vivid cloth.

I was sweating profusely. Lady Damballa took a hold of my cold, clammy hands.
"Don't be nervous," she said. "Take big, deep breaths."
Inhale. Exhale. Proper breathing is a powerful tool to combat anxiety and stress.
"No wonder you seem so forbidding," Damballa tightly squeezed my hands. Her eyebrows frowned and her nose wrinkled. "Your life has been fierce and it will continue to be cruel."
I took another deep breath and listened to the unpleasant scrutiny.
"You've failed at relationships your entire life, and you'll continue to fail at them in the foreseeable future."
I pulled my hands away from Damballa's.
"You don't know me! You're just some con artist that steals money via PayPal!"
Damballa narrowed her eyes. Her mouth formed a pensive frown. "I'm done," she growled.
"No wait!" Exclaimed Nasim. "He's sorry! Tell Ms. Damballa you're sorry!"
"My mama always told me the most rewarding thing in life is the moment you have the courage to accept who you really are," snarled Damballa.
"My mama always told me that someday I'll finally realize all of the damage that I've caused."

With dignified humility, I apologized.
Damballa took my hands.
"I can feel stress and tension within your family, but that will end very soon."
The unintentional abuse from my parents that has caused resentment.
"There is someone. A girl. You're very much alike. Make no mistake, you don't light up each other's lives. You just sit with each other in the darkness."
"Am I ever happy?" I desperately asked.
"That's up to you. You don't find happiness, you make it."
Damballa began to make deep, painful sounds. She firmly crunched my fingers with her hands. She was wearing large, metal rings set with gemstones. The jewelry was pinching my skin and leaving impressions in my fingers.
"Ms. Damballa, you're hurting me."

"I see a black energy permeating your body. Are you sick?"
"I have Chesterhinde's disease. It's very rare. Tell me, will it be how I die?"
She tensed up.
"Don't you know? People can be dead even before they've died. I will start praying for you because you're already burning in hell. The hell is yourself."

I let go of Damballa's hands. I sat still for a moment. Unpleasant thoughts distracted my attention.
"I'm ready to go now," I told Nasim. I didn't feel right. I was feeling more trepidation than normal.

As Nasim and I were leaving, Lady
Damballa began to pray. "Loving God, I pray that you will comfort him in his suffering, lend skill to the hands of his healers, and bless the means used for his cure. Give him such confidence in the power of your grace, that even when he is afraid, he may put his whole trust in you; through our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. ... Amen."

We got in the cab.

"What the fuck was that?"
"Relax," Nasim said. "It was supposed to be fun."
"Fun?"
"She's been practicing for over 20 years. Her ad said the readings are 'for entertainment purposes only' — she has rave reviews."
"I was under the assumption that you knew her personally."
"No. She's just a convincing medium that fascinates customers with the mystical trappings of supernatural force."
I told Nasim that I didn't enjoy the experience.
"How did she do?"
"She was pretty much spot on. That's what was terrifying."

After the awkward psychological consultation, Nasim took me to a Snowball Stand on Magazine Street. Nasim ordered one Georgia Peach and one Blood Orange.
"Here, try this." She handed me the peach flavored treat. The ice shavings were light and fluffy and the taste was tart and sweet.
"Not bad."
We walked to Laurence Square and sat in the shade. The day was warm and somewhat humid.
"What type of trees are these?" I pointed to the large, spreading branches that provided us shelter from the sun.
"They're live oaks. They're pretty amazing. They're practically indestructible. They can almost always survive a fire and are incredibly tolerant to high winds and flood waters."

"They're beautiful."
Like Viola. Indestructible and beautiful.

I stared at the trees with amazement. I took another bite of my icy treat.
"What do you think is something about life that people don't appreciate as much as they should?"
"The list is endless," Nasim replied. "A smile from a stranger. An itch you can reach. A beautiful sunrise."
She dug her spoon into her mound of flavored ice.
"What about you? What do you think?"
"Finding meaning in this stupid, idiotic world."
Nasim folded her arms and rolled her eyes. "Why do you always seem so miserable?!"
I cluelessly shrugged. "I have had this powerful and persistent grief with me ever since I was young. Like I'm missing something..."
"Like you lost your marbles?"
"Nothing like that. Just — forget it."
"Whatever it is, I hope you find it." Nasim stood up and started to walk back towards the car. "C'mon. Let's go for a drive."

We visited the jogging path and duck pond at Audubon Park. Nearby was a knobby, sprawling oak called The Tree of Life. We climbed the branches of the 300 year old tree and watched the giraffes at the neighboring zoo. From there we went to the riverside portion of the park, known as the Fly.
"That is my fear," Nasim pointed to the brown and opaque Mississippi River.
"It was a sweltering hot day in August. I was 10 and my sister was 6. Aisha was such a happy and vivacious kid. She was my best friend.
The neighbors had a swimming pool and we went over to keep cool. Aisha absolutely loved water. She was astonished everytime heavy rain poured from the sky. We both could swim. Mom and dad got both of us swim lessons. We were always safe.
I was playing with our neighbor, Jennifer, and Aisha was sitting on a lounge chair drinking some lemonade. She spilt her drink and began to cry. I quickly ran to her aid and tried to comfort her by wrapping her with a towel. Aisha was particularly peevish that day. She seemed tired.
Jennifer's mom called us in for lunch. I remember what she made because Aisha thought it sounded gross. It was hotdog sliders with mango-pineapple salsa. Aisha asked for a freezer pop instead.
She went back outside to eat her frozen treat. Only minutes later I went to check on her. I couldn't find her. I frantically looked, calling her name. A short time went by and then I saw her. She was by the stairs, halfway to the bottom of the pool. I stood there, frozen and screaming. Jennifer's mom rushed past me and pulled her out of the water. Her body was limp and pale. I was so scared.
She spent the next few days in PICU on life support. Eventually she was pronounced brain dead. My parents were destroyed. I was traumatized. Since her passing, I've had this terrifying fear of water. And then a couple years later, Katrina happened. That just strengthened the fear."

"That's horrible." I felt a strange, deep feeling of distress. Like I tragically lost someone too.
"I get severe anxiety if there's strong winds, dark clouds, and rising sea levels." Nasim stepped closer to the river and placed her hands on the guardrail.
"Viola says it's not fear, it's guilt. It's a reminder of my moral culpability."
A great blue heron dropped from the air near the water's edge, and speared it's bill into the water.
"I'm afraid of dying."
I watched the bird swallow its food whole.
"I guess it's more of not wanting it to happen. My parents coddled and cosseted me my entire life. I've never had full control. And I know I have absolutely no control over death. I'm sick, and inevitably it's going to kill me if something else doesn't."
Nasim sighed. "Life is messy because we're all a little messed up."

We walked back to the cab.

"Do you know about the historian?" I asked Nasim.
"I know of him." Nasim glanced at me from the corner of her eye. "There's two kinds of people in this world, Phin.
Someone who stares in a mirror and sees themself. They see all of their strengths and indecencies, all of their redeeming features and indecorous behaviour.
Then there's people who look in the mirror and only see evil. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was creating a mirror, and the reflection is always of him."

We got in Nasim's car and she drove me back to Viola's.
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