Memento Mori

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21

The historian was dressed in a loose, white cotton shirt and tan khakis. He wore a wide brim hat for UV protection. He was short and had a full rounded body. He wore round prescription glasses with a tortoiseshell plastic frame. In his right hand he carried a walking stick accented with an ergonomic wooden skull handle. In his left hand he was holding a bunch of white paddle fans.

Viola and I joined his tour group that gathered in front of a voodoo-themed gift shop. We approached him.

"How much for the tour?" Viola asked.

"Twenty-five dollars per person. It's a ninety minute, historically accurate walking tour of our great city's oldest cemetery."

"Two please." Viola handed the historian a fifty dollar bill.

"Thank you." He plucked the money from Viola's fingers and handed us two paddle fans.

"Please line up against the wall until we're all ready to go."

It was hot. The night had light winds. Viola was leaned up against the brick wall of the gift shop. She was waving the paddle fan, attempting to circulate the heated air. She looked impatient and uncomfortable.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"Thermoregulation of my body no longer works like yours. My body corresponds to the temperature of my surroundings. Put an ice cube in a glass of warm water, it melts. If I get too hot, I smell like rotting flesh."

Louisiana probably wasn't an ideal state to reside in, because of high humidity and a dew point temperature being consistently high.



"It reminds me of home in Toulouse," she said. "I can tolerate the heat. The smell is no worse than the acrid odor of a boozer on Bourbon Street."

"Gather around everyone," said the tour guide. He unlocked the toggle of the chin strap on his hat. "My name is Victorio Vincent Vance. In just a few minutes we are going to be walking to the oldest cemetery in the city, Cimetière Saint-Louis. Or sometimes called, Cementerio de San Luis! Cemetery No. 1 is the oldest, it is the most famous, and it is only five blocks away. So, I ask, if you don't mind, follow my behind."

We walked a block and a half up to Dauphine Street. The historian stopped at the corner.

"Three blocks to our left you can find the first licensed brothel in the Quarter. The building now houses a cocktail lounge. On the wall, you can find the original 1857 brothel license prominently displayed."

Viola is the one responsible for introducing the madam of the brothel to the state legislature. The flesh-peddling businesswoman became the political boss's mistress, and he's the one that orchestrated her convicted brother's release from prison.

The story goes, a young girl, bludgeoned and drained of her blood, had escaped her captor. She managed to run down Royal Street and come across an officer on a horse. She told him of a room with other victims, all beaten and drained of their blood. The girl escaped because her shackles weren't properly secured. The officer persuaded the girl to take him to the scene of the crime. She took him to the location and he was terrified with what he saw. Four other victims, all young adults, badly injured and tied to chairs. All of the victims, barely coherent, had bloody bandages on their wrists.

The suspect was sleeping at the time. The officer quickly called for backup and immediately apprehended the sleeping man. It was Daniel Bacque. Madame Bacque's brother and local risqué photographer. He was prominently known for photographing prostitutes.

When asked why he was assaulting and torturing young adults, he told detectives he needed the blood of virgins to feed a sufferer of purgatory.

He was sent to the psychiatric hospital in Jackson for evaluation. His study concluded that he was calm and within reasonable limits of being sane. He was then locked up in Baton Rouge Penitentiary.

Bacque was released from prison and immediately following, he murdered a Dutch immigrant and her two children. The Legislature's involvement surfaced, and his wife became familiar with the affair. She turned him in for being involved with a 'lewd establishment' and aiding in a prostitution ring. Ending in a mistrial, the story was in all the newspapers, and ultimately destroyed his reputation. He died of Typhoid the following year. Shortly after, Madame Bacque was poisoned with Oleander leaves. The plant is extremely toxic and a single leaf can kill an adult. Someone slipped some in her collard greens with pot liquor. After Daniel Bacque committed the triple murder, he was never seen again.

I've been to the first licensed brothel in the Quarter. The walls are lined with Bacque's infamous photography. One of the prints is a 1915 photograph of Viola. She's dressed in a rich violet top and corset. She's casually sitting on a wooden stool, holding an opera length cigarette holder. She's positioned in front of a full wall mirror. In the mirror you can see Daniel Bacque's reflection. The photograph is titled, 'The Lady and Her Angajat'.

_______________


The group arrived at the cemetery.
"Opened in 1789, No. 1 replaced the city's older St. Peter Cemetery. The grounds have been in use since it's foundation," the historian explained to the crowd. "Because the Crescent City is built on a swamp, the dead have to be buried above ground in stone crypts and mausoleums. Over time the elaborate resting grounds have been compared to small villages, obtaining the nickname, 'Cities of the Dead'."
The historian walked the group to some of the more notable New Orleanians buried in the one square block.
"Here lies the famous voodoo priestess, Marie Laveau. Her name and her history have been surrounded by legend and lore."
I leaned over and whispered to Viola. "Did you know her?"
Viola smiled. "She was a hairdresser. Hairdressers gossip with their clients. Her clients were servants. She was exposed to a plethora of personal information about rich white people. They were the ones who sought her spiritual guidance. She took advantage of the gossip when they came for her counsel. She was just a brilliant, deceiving chick doing what she had to for economic stability."

The historian pointed at the graffiti scribbled on Laveau's tomb.
"The X's on her grave is a decades-old tradition. An X for a wish. If the wish comes true, return and leave an offering." He removed his tortoiseshell plastic framed glasses and widened his eyes, "DO NOT draw on the tombs," he stressed. "I'm serious folks, it's vandalism and it's punishable by law."

"So is desecrating a corpse," Viola blurted out. Everyone in the group focused on Viola. The historian's skin became flush. Beads of sweat trickled from beneath his wide brim hat.
"Pardon?" He asked. He squinted his eyes, his lips pursed, and his nostrils flared.
"In the news. Tombs with recently deceased children have been desecrated."
The historian removed his hat and wiped a coating of sweat from his forehead.
"That isn't appropriate for this tour, young lady." He turned around and began to trot. "Let's continue down the aisle," he barked.
Viola stopped in her tracks and began to declaim,
"Her black eyes are made of beads,
but they're all the eyes she needs.
And she has no hair at all,
for she's just an old rag doll.
Lucy May."

The historian came to a halt. He slowly turned around.

"Her best dress is very plain,
she's been left out in the rain.
And her age I mustn't tell,
though I know it very well.
Lucy May."

Viola took a few steps closer to the group.

The historian began shaking. His lips were quivering. His skin was ghostly and moist.

"But I love this doll the best,
better far than all the rest.
And I hug her very tight,
and I love her day and night.
Lucy May."

The historian fiercely glared at Viola. She leered back at him. A man in the crowd began to cheer, prompting everyone in the group to applaud. Viola turned around and moseyed away from the group. I followed her.
"Now what?" I asked.
Viola simpered and said, "we wait."
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