Ode To The Drowned City
WHEN THE SAINTS COME MARCHIN' IN
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
SIESTA KEY, Fla., Sept. 4, 2005 -- Tonight at sunset I took a long drive after Mass down to Turtle Beach at the end of Midnight Pass Road on Siesta Key. The bright orange wafer of the Sun was just falling below the rim of the Gulf of Mexico, and as I always try to do, I looked up at the shape of the sparse few clouds in the fading blue sky and wondered whose souls they were.
The largest of all was of a bird, a graceful kingfisher whose figure stretched for miles from his long pointed beak to the one sad eye in his trapped and perfect head; his arcing white wings trailed away from magnificent tail feathers into a rippling white stream that faded for 10 miles into the cerulean blue.
Clutched in the talons of the kingfisher was a long thin evil-looking thing I named a rat shark, with the elongated snout of a rat and mutliple triangular barbed fins along his head and the body of a dark greasy eel, his dreadful hungry jagged mouth staring back in anger at New Orleans as he was carried away to his reward.
Just behind the kingfisher and going the opposite way was the figure of a tall graceful woman, her naked long glowing white limbs stretched in a languid swim and her hair curled in a bun, and her head turned away from shore, back towards the drowning city far away. I recognized her as Evangeline, the living goddess of hills and vales of Arcady, where the Cajun people began their awful journey to the distant shores of the Mississippi Delta.
Beyond her were two terrible masks like those of Tragedy and Comedy, reminiscent of them in their pairing but unlike them in the gargoyle shriek of their faces. I remember them as the masks of Mardi Gras, but they would terrify the dead. Atop a dune, amid small clusters of people standing silently as they waited for the Sun to drop, I thought of the city of music that is drowning as I write.
I know who they are, the kingfisher, the rat shark, Evangeline and the masks; they are the soul of a city, and they will precede the eternal march of the thousands dead now and the thousands dead before them, and at last the triumphant march of "the city that care forgot." The masks were the broken-hearted soul of Tennessee Williams, he of the tales of Desire and the sweet fragility of hope, who now unclosed from his grave bids the the audience still ashore to be rapt and sacred watchfulness.
The Kingfisher was the soul of Huey Long, the famous Populist whose life was taken by an assassin after he ruthlessly reined in the demigods of the petroleum business, John D. Rockefeller and others. To history he is only known for legendary corruption, but to historians he is known as the first American governor to stand up to the power of a rich and rotten industry and seize it for the people. Even those who know him as corrupt are shamed by the towering rage and roaring music of his great Louisiana soul.
The rat shark was the essence of the evil that lived in New Orleans, so it might have been some combination of former Gov. Edwin Edwards and a hungry oilman who gave his great city over into the raking jaws of refineries, pipelines and toxic chemical plants that surrounded it. He was every excuse New Orleans ever made for itself, every head turned away from the face of violated beauty, every dead thing that passed for an eye that glared from the sockets of a crooked, brutal cop. And Evangeline, her face turned away from us towards the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, is the soul of her people, the mestizos of French, Indian and Negro blood awed by the gentle music of Longfellow's timeless poetry and the dim racial memory of a place called Arcadia, an Eden known only to them.
Many people, I fear, do not know what befalls us when we die, or seem to, and leave this weary Earth of ours. What happens is that the essence of our souls, which flies from us in a pulse of light, expands in the atmosphere and takes the form that best fulfills it, and depending on the size of the life we held within, spreads it out, converted to this luminous white of clouds, gowning us across the endless miles of the sky, and we inhabit these new beings that are purely ourselves as we float above the seas to - well, I do not know that part. I do not know where we go.
So preceded by these four grand marshals, and followed by smaller pure white angels that hung in the dusk at the edge of the sky, the march shall soon begin. Thus the honest soul of a busker will march beside that of a Baptist preacher who once raged of true perdition, and both shall be in the trail of a man slain for his honesty with a sharp knife in an alley off Bourbon Street.
It is not required of the marchers in this parade that they joined any krewe, wore any beads, fought and brawled and drank and danced and gave all hope to abandon, but it helps. If you failed to live, or lived only at the expense of others, your own soul will simply merge with tens of thousands of others to become a ripple in the prayerful bearded face of one who knelt before the storm and opened his tired eyes and hopeful soul to God, in awe and trembling at His enormous strength.
There will be a happy chef among the marchers, that I know, and there will be a beautiful willowy singer of timeless songs, and an enormous bartender whose flowing cup shall never empty. There will be the soul of a crooked politician who embodied evil to some but who secretly wanted to be good, and quietly loved New Orleans; there will be a fat black woman sprawling over miles, laughing, reaching for cakes and pies and children with giant arms. There will be the soul of a dog who loved one master and gave his life for him, and of a drummer who burned to death in a French Quarter dive in a fire that blazed up from his sticks.
That is how the great funeral parade of the soul of New Orleans will begin to march across the oceans tonight, tomorrow, the next day and the next, and for a very, very long time. There is no rush up there.
You know the songs that we who watch will sing on this side of the shore, but the music that will drive their caravan forward is a world beyond us, and we will not hear it till we die. We might if God is generous hear just a snatch of it, however, a few fleeting notes that reverberate with the power of forever. I heard a little of it long ago.
Joe Shea is the Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter.