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Authors: Louis Maistros

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BOOK: The Sound of Building Coffins
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Steadying the bag on his lap, Typhus reached a hand in and stroked the tiny arms and neck of one of the children. Scooped his other hand inside the bag and tenderly—so tenderly—separated the little creature from its brother and sister. Let its tiny head bob at the water’s surface. Its sweet face looked up at the moon, bathed in lemon light. There was no pain in this face. No tragedy or loss. But there was something missing.

Life.

Typhus’ small hands looked huge holding the little creature. He held the baby steady at the surface and gently cleansed him, let the water wash over its pink and blue skin. Washing away the sticky blood and gelatin of birth.

Typhus Morningstar closed his eyes. Smiled.


Come on, little fella. Time to be on yer way.” Opened his eyes again. Looked down.

He held the baby’s arms to its sides with the slightest pressure, his left hand moving up and down along the child’s right arm in a sweeping caress. Its smooth skin yielded to his touch like clay, gradually melting to its side. Seamlessly. He repeated this process with the left arm until both sides were a perfect match. Then Typhus focused on the legs, stroking and smoothing the soft flesh into a single fat leg, his gentle hands molding the unborn child’s figure into a swooning teardrop. Next were the shoulders. So smooth. So trusting. Blending into the neck so perfectly. Exactly like wet clay.

Last was the head.

Nose and mouth extending into one. Lips disappearing. Eyelids vanishing over wide, round, flat, staring eyes. Cheeks flattening. Smooth. Perfect. Warm.

Typhus held the newly shaped fetus underwater. As the head went under, there appeared a moment’s struggle—but there’s always a slight struggle in waking moments, Typhus acknowledged. The legs, now a tail, thrashed about. Mouth bubbling, horizontal slits opening where ears used to be, head bucking. Typhus held fast, stroking the creature ever gently till it calmed. Cooing. Said the thing that he always said at this point:


They gave it to me, but I gave it back the best I could.”

He sang as the baby finished its changing time, its water birth. The song he sang was of a religious nature, but he placed no significance on the words. He just thought it was a pretty tune, something sweet to sing as he delivered his children. It put them at ease, or so it seemed.

 

Jesus, I’m troubled about my soul

Ride on, Jesus, come this way…

 

The tiny catfish was pure pink and rapidly calming now, its tail experimentally flicking at the currents of the top waves with hungry curiosity. With a kind of yearning.

It was time.

Typhus let go. A tear rolled down his cheek. It was always hard to let the babies go.

Swimming now. Towards Algiers. Disappearing from sight. Beneath sparkly slivers of yellow light.

Troubled about my soul…

Again, and with great love, Typhus Morningstar reached into the burlap bag.

A light drizzle began to fall.

 

Chapter two

The Note

 

The song began like all melodies, with a single note.

On this day, at this hour and this particular moment, the note was E flat. Unaccompanied, the note betrayed key neither minor nor major, betrayed no key at all. Beginning soft as breath and held, gaining strength and definition with only the slightest quiver. Not
vibrato
in any premeditated way, just the lightest jangle of the player’s nerves, his humanity, his heartbeat.

Then a fade.

As if the note were giving way to something greater than itself, greater than its own simple purity and strength; weakening ever gently. Giving up quietly, submitting to its own misinformed sense of futility, going back to earth, to the simple clay of dumb beginnings and answerless endings.

 

*

The player considers the note. He cannot sustain. There is no reason. But the weakening tone is somehow unfinished. Like a spirited pup born too soon, too small and too weak to live, knowing nothing of life but clinging to it anyway; stupidly, stupidly—fighting for its chance but not knowing why, not understanding what sort of thing the chance is. Not knowing anything.

But knowing everything it will ever need to know. Its heartbeat struggles, weakens, slows—but does not stop. And then:

The fade is cut short, interrupted by a flurry of sound; a quick burst heading skyward, headstrong and unexpected, defying the futility of the E flat, exposing a minor key in the subtlest way, transforming the uncertainty of E flat into a belligerent D. Holding. Dipping. Leaping and crashing—but not crashing.

Saved
.

Gliding back down to…E flat again? No. A. Holding again—but not holding. Bending, wavering, wanting to climb too high but resisting—spinning somehow without moving up or down, pulling something from deep within the player, bringing this thing out of the cornet, out
through
the cornet. All this in a single note. A single, simple, ordinary note.

A.

But not A. Something about the A is different. It is a different world from the world of the E flat entirely. Something about the way the player arrived at the A. Not
that
it was discovered, but
how
it was discovered. Something about the player’s reaction to the note, the lightness of mind and intensity of spirit it brought him for just a moment. Something about the way the instrument reacted to the touch of his lips, the way it trembled in his grip. The note was A.

A
.

But not A.

This is where things change; completely, irrevocably.

But with change comes clarity. And with clarity comes understanding. And with understanding comes questions. And with questions of this kind comes a sort of madness.

E flat. Transition. A.

Questions.

The player stops.

He is drunk. He does not know what has happened. His mind is not ready for the questions, he doesn’t want to hear them. He reaches for his bottle of train yard-grade gin but only knocks it to the floor; the bottle doesn’t break and he doesn’t pick it up. He lays his horn on the pillow, he lays his head next to the horn; it is inches from his eyes. His eyes are red, he feels tears building there but doesn’t let them through. They close. He strokes the horn. He falls asleep. Gin drips to the floor, the bottle on its side.

He will not remember the A. He does not know that he has seen the face of God.

Clarity. Questions. E flat. A.

Something is created but stillborn; promised but denied.

Awaiting rebirth, it has all the time in the world. What did not exist does now. An abortion dumped in the river, letting go of life for now but knowing that new life will come. In time.

Differently. Irrevocably.

Buddy Bolden snores.

 

Chapter three

Man of God

 

Noonday Morningstar named his children for diseases. From oldest to youngest they were Malaria, Cholera, Diphtheria, Dropsy, and Typhus.

There’d been those in the Parish who’d publicly chided Father Morningstar for the naming, declaring it cruel to name innocent children for that which reminded a body only of suffering and death—but to Morningstar the names were a tribute to God’s glory, plain and simple. It didn’t matter if nosy folk didn’t understand or approve. God understood everything just fine.

Morningstar saw life as a trial and death as a reward, a bridge to paradise—and he saw God’s mysterious afflictions of the body as holy paths to that salvation. Disease may be a source of pain and hardship on earth, but what can be kinder and more blessed than a shortcut to heaven through no fault of your own? What could be a more magnificent display of God’s powers than the merciful, invisible insects that float through the air to infect the body, guiding you to your last breath and on to reward?

Plus, the diseases had such pretty names.

Strange name-giving aside, Noonday loved his children deeply and they returned his love in kind. He was a gentle and loving father to them and they, in turn, proved the wonders of God to him everyday. God had been generous, in His way, with every one of them. All were healthy and happy children—save for Cholera, who died after only two months on this earth, ironically, from cholera.

Although he believed it wrong to admit a favorite, Father Morningstar secretly saw his youngest as the gem of the lot. Although Gloria had died on the occasion of Typhus’ birth, Morningstar knew his wife would have gladly consented to that sacrifice to bring a creature so magical into the world. It was only a shame she hadn’t lived to know her little Typhus, her reason for dying.

About a mile and a half northwest of Congo Square, the Morningstar family’s tiny two-room house sat on a too-big piece of marshy ground too near where the Bayou St. John met the Old Basin Canal—a manmade waterway dredged from the bayou to the city’s heart nearly a century ago. It was a poor choice of real estate, prone to flooding—but the Morningstars had few possessions to lose and, in a pinch, could always relocate to the little church near the Girod Street potter’s field for the few days it took the waters to subside. Building a home on flood ground was something few were foolish enough to do, but the recklessness of the choice rewarded the family with unprecedented privacy in the fast growing city. Right out the front door was pure, wild beauty; dark, soft ground alive with salt meadow codgrass, water hyssops, and towering cypress trees—the latter entwined with boskoyo vines that proudly sprouted their sweet smelling violet and white flowers. At night there was only blackness, but if you ventured out with an oil lamp the ghostly trumpet-shaped blossoms of moonflowers would make themselves known.

The two rooms of the Morningstar house had their work cut out for them with five occupants to accommodate, so functionality was the rule. The larger was for sleeping and storing—the littler one for cooking, eating, and praying. The living water of the bayou could be strained then boiled; then used for washing or drinking. There was no real need for anything more—it was a fine place to live.

Tonight the timid hum of the children’s sleeping sounds offered guilty comfort to Noonday’s weary heart, and the stove fire failed to relieve his chill. He meditated on the glowing embers as they struggled to maintain orange—but meditation and prayer did not soothe on this night. He stabbed gently at the burning wood with a pointed iron, absently noting the fluttering patterns of white as ash broke apart and drifted to the stove’s base.

Earlier today, Noonday had done a thing that had brought shame to his heart, having put his own well-being above that of an innocent. Called to the home of Sicilian immigrants, he had believed he was to perform the last rites for a fatally ill child, a common enough sort of call. But when he entered the house a smell like burning compost hung in the air and a heavy sense of dread settled into his bones. The child appeared asleep in its crib as Noonday read aloud from Matthew 18:


Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.


And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.


But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

At that, the child’s eyes sprang open to lock with his own.

It was in this moment of eye contact that Noonday heard the voice of Jesus telling him to leave, telling him that to stay would mean to sacrifice himself in vain, to make his own children orphans—and The Savior’s tone had not been gentle in the telling. Noonday had often heard the nagging voice of God in his head, had never before questioned it. But the kind of blatant abandonment suggested by his God today felt wrong to him. The words of the reporter who’d stopped him outside the house had echoed his own thoughts; this was God’s business—and Noonday Morningstar had dedicated his life to such business. It was not his place to turn tail and run, even at the insistence of Jesus Christ Our Lord and Savior Himself.

What is a man of God to do when the clear instructions of The Savior conflict with the plain feelings of right and wrong that God himself has placed in his chest? If there was an answer to this question, he dare not seek it in the eyes of his children. This was a burden he must carry alone.


Father?” Typhus was standing in the doorway. Noonday couldn’t guess for how long; Typhus was such a quiet thing.


Yes, son?”


You’re crying.”

Noonday had been unaware of his own tears until that moment. “I suppose I am,” he offered his son with an embarrassed smile.


Can I help?”

These three words carried unintended poignancy, and, as always, Typhus’ simple kindness offered simple answers. The boy truly amazed him.


You already have, Typhus. I love you so much.” He picked up his son in a hug. “I have to go out for a little while. House call. Unfinished business.”

BOOK: The Sound of Building Coffins
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