FOR REBECCA HILL
New Orleans, the summer of l853- Yellow fever ravages the busy
port city. Bells toll for the souls of the dead. Boats on the Mississippi River
are placed in quarantine, their cargoes left to spoil, their crews felled by
disease. Before the summer is over, eight thousand people will die.
In the city, yellow fever is known as the Stranger's Disease.
Immigrants -- Italian, Greek, German, Polish, new arrivals from the great
cities of New York and Boston -- have no resistance to the fever. The Irish,
who'd traveled to New Orleans to escape their terrible famine, soon fall
victim, dying within a week of the first sinister chill.
During the day, the streets are empty. At night, mass burials take
place all over town. Graveyards fill; corpses lie rotting in piles, swelling in
the sun. Gravediggers are bribed with alcohol to ignore the putrid smell and
dig shallow trenches for the bodies of the poor. New Orleans's black population
-- slaves and the free people of color -- have seemed largely immune, but in
August of l853, even they start to succumb. Native-born wealthy families --
Creole and American -- suffer as badly as poor immigrants.
The ornate tombs in the walled cemeteries, New Orleans's famous
Cities of the Dead, fill with mothers and fathers, daughters and sons. At
Lafayette Cemetery, on the new,
American side of the city, bodies are left at the gates every
night. There is no room to bury these unknown dead, and many of the corpses are
In the last week of August, in the dead of night, a group of men
unlock the Sixth Street gates to Lafayette Cemetery and make their way by
torchlight to an imposing family tomb. Two coffins of yellow fever victims,
both from the same family, had been placed in the vault earlier that afternoon,
one on each of its long, narrow shelves. According to local custom, once in
place, the coffins should have been sealed behind a brick wall for a year and a
But the coffins are still unsealed. The men remove the marble
plate, covering their mouths, choking at the smell of the bodies decomposing in
the heat. Onto the top coffin, they slide a shrouded corpse, then quickly
replace the plate.
The next day, the tomb is sealed. A year later, the men return to
break through the bricks. The two disintegrating coffins are thrown away, and the
bones of the dead covered with soil in the
a pit at the bottom
of the vault.
The names of the first two corpses interred in the vault that
terrible August are carved onto the tomb's roll call of the dead. The name of
the third corpse is not.
Only the men who placed the body inside the tomb know of its
TORRENTIAL RAIN WAS POURING THE AFTER" noon Rebecca Brown
arrived in New Orleans. When the plane descended through gray clouds, she could
only glimpse the dense swamps to the west of the city. Stubby cypress trees
poked out of watery groves, half submerged by the rain-whipped waters, flecked
with snowy herons. The city was surrounded by water on all sides -- by swamps
and bayous; by the brackish Lake Pontchartrain, where pelicans swooped and a
narrow causeway, the longest bridge in the world, connected the city with its
distant North Shore; and, of course, by the curving Mississippi River, held
back by grass-covered levees.
Like many New Yorkers, Rebecca knew very little about New Orleans.
She'd barely even heard of the place until Hurricane Katrina hit, when it was
on the news every night -- and it wasn't the kind of news that made anyone want
to move there. The city had been decimated by floodwaters, filling up like a
bowl after the canal levees broke. Three years later, New Orleans still seemed
like a city in ruins.
Thousands of its citizens were still living in other parts of the
country. Many of its houses were still waiting to be gutted and rebuilt; many
had been demolished. Some of them were still clogged with sodden furniture and
collapsed roofs, too dangerous to enter, waiting for owners or tenants who
never came back.
Some people said the city -- one of the oldest in America -- would
never recover from this hurricane and the surging water that followed. It
should be abandoned and left to return to swampland, another floodplain for the
"I've never heard anything so ridiculous in my life,"
said Rebecca's father, who got agitated, almost angry, whenever an opinion of
this kind was expressed on a TV news channel. "It's one of the great
American cities. Nobody ever talks about abandoning Florida, and they get
hurricanes there all the time."
"Tail's is the only great city in America," Rebecca told
him. Her father might roll his eyes, but he wouldn't argue with her: There was
nothing to argue about. New York was pretty much the center of the universe, as
far as she was concerned.
But now here she was -- flying into New Orleans one month before
Thanksgiving. A place she'd never been before, though her father had an old
friend here -- some lady called Claudia Vernier who had a daughter, Aurelia.
Rebecca had met them exactly once in her life, in their room at a Midtown
hotel. And now she'd been taken out of school five weeks before the end of the
semester and sent hundreds of miles from home.
Not for some random, impromptu vacation: Rebecca was expected to
here. For six whole months.
The plane bumped down through the sparse clouds, Rebecca scowling
at her own vague reflection in the window. Her olive-toned skin looked
winter-pale in this strange light, her mess of dark hair framing a narrow face
and what her father referred to as a "determined" chin. In New York
the fall had been amazing: From her bedroom window, Central Park looked on
fire, almost, ablaze with the vivid colors of the dying leaves. Here,
everything on the ground looked dank, dull, and green.
Rebecca wasn't trying to be difficult. She understood that someone
needed to look after her: Her father -- who was a high-powered tech consultant
-- had to spend months in China on business, and she was fifteen, too young to
be left alone in the apartment on Central Park West. Usually when he was
traveling for work, Mrs. Horowitz came to stay. She was a nice elderly lady who
liked watching the Channel II news on TV with the volume turned up too loud,
and who got irrationally worried about Rebecca eating fruit at night and taking
showers instead of baths.
But no. It was too long for Mrs. Horowitz to stay, her father
said. He was sending her to New Orleans, somewhere that still looked like a war
zone. On TV three years ago they'd seen the National Guard driving around in
armored vehicles. Some neighborhoods had been completely washed away.
"The storm was a long time ago -- and anyway, you're going to
be living in the Garden District," he had told her. They were sitting in
her bedroom, and he was picking at the
frayed edges of her cream-colored quilt, not meeting Rebecca's
eye. "Everything's OK there -- it didn't flood. It's still a beautiful old
"But I don't even know Aunt Claudia!" Rebecca protested.
"She's not even my real aunt!"
"She's a very good friend of ours," her father said, his
voice strained and tense. "I know you haven't seen her for a long time,
but you'll get on just fine with her and Aurelia."
All Rebecca could remember of Aunt Claudia were the jangly
bracelets she had worn and her intense green eyes. She'd been friendly enough,
but Rebecca had been shooed away after a couple of minutes so the adults could
talk. She and Aurelia, who was just a little girl then, seven years old and
very cute, spent the rest of the visit playing with Aurelia's dolls in the
And these were the people -- these
-- Rebecca was
expected to live with for six months?
"Claudia is the closest thing I have to family -- you know
that. Everything's arranged. End of discussion."
"There hasn't been any
Rebecca complained. Because her mother had died when Rebecca was small, and
because she had no grandparents or any real family, she and her dad had always
been a tight team -- Brown, Party of Two, as they often joked. Now, all of a
sudden, why was he acting in such a high-handed manner? "You never even
asked me what I think. You're just shipping me off somewhere ... somewhere
dangerous. Haven't you heard about the crime in New Orleans? And there were,
like, two other hurricanes this year!"
"Oh, Rebecca," her father said, his eyes murky with
His whole body slumped, as though she'd taken a swing at him. He
put his arm around her and pulled her close. His voice was soft.
"Hurricane season is over, honey. I promise you, I won't let anything bad
happen to you. Not now, not ever."
"Oh, Dad," Rebecca said, the words muffled by his
shoulder. She couldn't remember him ever acting quite this way before. There
were times when her father went quiet and broody, just sitting around the
apartment gazing at photographs of her mother and looking morose, but she
couldn't remember him crying. "I'm not really worried about bad things.
It's just ... I don't want to leave this apartment and my friends and school
and everything, just to go somewhere messed-up and weird. It might be really
"I hope we both have a very boring six months," he said.
He drew back from her, and gave her a tired half smile. "Believe" me,
boring would be good."
Boring was exactly Rebecca's first impression of the near-empty
Louis Armstrong airport. She'd wondered if she'd be able to see Aunt Claudia
and Aurelia in the crowd, but trudging from the gate, listening to the piped-in
jazz playing throughout the terminal, Rebecca spotted them at once. It would have
been impossible to miss them, she thought, her heart sinking. Claudia was
dressed in some sort of gypsy costume, including a bright headscarf and giant
silver hoop earrings. She was darker skinned than Rebecca remembered, and her
eyes were a strange sea green, her gaze darting around like a bird's.
Aurelia had grown -- she was twelve now -- into a round-faced
cherub, her messy dark curls tied up in a ponytail. She
was dressed far more formally than her mother: a black plaid
skirt, a black woolen blazer emblazoned with a gold crest, white knee socks,
and lace-up shoes. This had to be the school uniform for Temple Mead Academy,
the school Rebecca would be attending as well. The uniform was even worse than
she'd imagined. Her friends at Stuyvesant High School would die laughing if
they saw that prim outfit, not to mention Aunt Claudia's Halloween-style gypsy
getup. If this was what people here wore every day, Rebecca wondered, what did
they look like at Mardi Gras?
She walked as slowly as possible through the security exit and
fluttered the tiniest of waves in Aunt Claudia's direction. Her aunt's face
"Here she is!" she said, reaching out for an effusive,
jewelry-rattling embrace as Rebecca approached. She smelled of lavender and
something smoky and Eastern, like incense, or maybe charred satay sticks.
"Baby, look at you! You've grown so tall!"
"Yes," said Rebecca, suddenly shy. Homesickness churned
in her stomach: She would be living in a strange house for months on end, with
this odd woman she barely knew. Nobody called her "baby" in New York.
"We have a car," said Aurelia, not bothering to wait for
introductions or greetings. She was wriggling with excitement.
"That's nice." Rebecca wasn't sure if that was the right
thing to say, but Aurelia beamed at her.
"We've never had a car before,,
explained. Aunt Claudia caught Rebecca's hand and drew her toward the
escalator, Aurelia scampering down ahead of them.
"FEMA money," Aunt Claudia stage-whispered. Rebecca
tried to remember what FEMA was exactly -- something to do with the government,
maybe. "I decided I needed it for work, before the streetcar started
running again on St. Charles."