This heat. The air hung with such humidity in the streets of New Orleans that afternoon, Armelle’s limbs felt coated in syrup. Praline heat, she thought, as she steadied her breathing — sticky and seductive. She could smell the brown sugar wafting from the open windows of the candy shops, imagine the rum cocktails pouring in the bars lining the streets. Everything in the Old Quarter simmered and boiled until it distilled into something rich, intoxicating, and far too addictive for a single taste.
And, surely she had to be either addicted or crazy to pose as still as death in these conditions? Traffic noises and conversation snatches wrecked her conversation. The heat leeched her energy. She’d posed for nearly an hour with no results until weariness weighed her down and a headache loomed at the back of her skull.
“Is she real, mommy?” Armelle heard a little girl ask. From the corner of her eye, she could just see blond curls and pink plastic sunglasses perched on a little freckled nose.
“She’s real a person, Susie, just not a real angel,” the mother said from somewhere to Armelle’s right. “She’s only pretending to be made of stone like those angel statues we saw in the big cemetery tour.”
“Like playing make-believe?” the little girl asked.
“Yes, but for money, sweetheart. She’s what is called a performance artist. Some people do that when they can’t get other kinds of work.”
Irritation stabbed Armelle just to the left of one fake wing. Well, what did she expect? It’s not like the truth read any better—a doctoral student dressed like a kneeling angel to lure a ghost. No, she corrected, not a ghost, a past life event. And, in order to recreate exactly the right conditions for the phenomena to occur, she had to stay focused which was nearly impossible on a busy street.
I’m addicted to this place, she thought. A sober person would have left at the first sign of danger. Surely she had to be either addicted or crazy to pose as still as death in these conditions? Traffic noises and snatches of conversation wrestled with her concentration. The heat leeched her energy. She’d posed for nearly an hour with no results until weariness weighed her down and a headache loomed at the edge of her temples.
I’m addicted to this place, she thought. A sober person would have left town at the first sign of danger. A sober person would never watch her career shatter into a thousand pieces, or push her body to extremes day and night. And, more significant than anything, a sober person would never kneel perfectly still in the burning heat waiting for a man who had been dead for over two centuries.
But she could not stop herself.
Maybe she wasn’t trying hard enough? Or, then again, maybe she was trying too hard. Coins clinked in the little bowl at Armelle’s feet but, the moment she dipped her head in thanks, the headache detonated. Startled by the sudden pain, she instinctively pressed her hands against her forehead and waited for the throb to pass. As she counted the seconds, the child’s chatter receding along with the honking horns and traffic noises of the Old Quarter.
When she opened her eyes, the street had plunged into a watery light that smeared her vision and blurred everything around her. She blinked, stunned. Instead of exhaust fumes, the pungent odor of dung stung her nostrils. A horse whinnied nearby. Waves washed ashore from somewhere behind her, though she had been standing nowhere near the river. She had crossed at last.
A man’s voice speaking French rose out of the background. “Answer me, damn it! Are you a spy, is that it? Speak, why don’t you?”
All at once, her vision cleared and Armelle blinked up into a man’s face. Dark hair plastered a bruised forehead above a jaw clenched in pain. One eye was swollen shut. Blood soaked the linen of his shirt and she read ferocious pain in his eyes.
Speak? She longed to scream her throat raw, to kick out at the world for the unfairness of everything. She knew that with a desperate certainty but couldn’t fix on specifics. Something in this long ago lifetime had been lost and something remained in danger still.
“I am a soldier,” she whispered at last, though neither the words nor the voice were hers. “A soldier does what must be done. Love and war should never mix,” she said, her voice hoarse. “Is that not the soldier’s creed? For once, it is the woman who is at the warrior and the man the pawn.”
Men shouted all around her, shoving her back. She had to escape but hardly had the will to move. Hitching up her skirts, she turned but as she did, the world around her burst into noise and motion.
She nearly fell headfirst onto the cobbled street. A hand shot out to catch her. Shrugging it away, she stumbled backward. Only when she tripped over her gown and tumbled backward onto the pavement, did the reality of traffic, footsteps, and voices penetrate her senses. She had catapulted into the present as suddenly as she had entered the past.
“Mommy! Look, the Frozen Angel’s fallen!” a child cried.
The Frozen Angel’s fallen?
“Susie, hold mommy’s bag. Miss, are you all right? We were watching you and you started stumbling backwards.”
Armelle blinked up into the concerned face of the woman— - thirtyish with a cap of highlighted gold hair.
“You called out in another language, French I think. I couldn’t understand a word,” the woman said. “You need a doctor.”
“No.” Armelle pushed herself up from the ground, looking around. “I mean, thank you but please don’t. I’m fine, really. Just a bit dizzy.” Where had she been? She shook her head, trying to dislodge wisps of powerful emotion she didn’t recognize. She gazed around at the busy street, overcome by a sense of terrible loss. “If they hang him, it will be my fault,” she mumbled.
“Hang who?” the woman asked, her face struck by fresh alarm.
Armelle paused, staring at her. “The man.”
“What man? You called out for someone, is that who you mean?” the woman said, her hand still on Armelle’s arm.
“Did I say a name?”
The woman nodded. “Antonio.”
“Antonio,” Armelle said in wonder. “His name is Antonio?”
“No.” She didn’t have a boyfriend and she didn’t know anybody named Antonio, either. “You’ll get covered in white,” Armelle said, trying to restore normalcy to this ridiculous situation. “From my grease paint.” She pointed to the woman’s hand.
The woman glanced down at the smudge of white on her palms. “Oh, it’ll wash off. Are you sure you don’t want a doctor?”
For the first time, Armelle noticed the woman’s t-shirt, the camera, the shopping bag from one of the souvenir shops —- a tourist, then. “No, really. Thanks for your help. Now, I’d better get going.”
But the woman wouldn’t leave. “Suzy and I must have watched you for, like, ten minutes, and you didn’t even blink,” she said. “A lot of people just kept right on walking, you know, but Suzy wanted to watch. Still, there’s got to be an easier way to make a living, if you know what I mean.”
The little girl, no more than six-years-old, stood nearby, gazing up at Armelle with an expression of utter wonder. She pointed to the feathered wings Armelle wore strapped to her back.
“A pretend angel,” she whispered. “Can you fly?”
Armelle stifled a laugh. “No, I can’t, sweetie. Believe me, if I could, I would have long ago.” Like on the day her world fell apart.
“Stone angels, real or pretend, can’t fly, Suzy,” her mother said.
“Bet you could if you tried,” the child insisted, following along beside her mother as Armelle made her way back to her upended milk crate pedestal. “Wanna try now?”
“Hush,” the mother admonished.
Armelle smiled. Pressing her fingers to her forehead, she forced her head to clear. Even with the headache gone, she felt drained and empty, almost bereft. It had been the same way the other two times she experienced the phenomenon.
Around her, a little cluster of onlookers still watched. Most had dispersed, probably disappointed the amazing frozen angel, the performance artist who could freeze like a statue for nearly an hour, had confirmed her humanity in such a pathetic way.
The last of her audience finally trail away, heading for their chicory coffees and beignets along Decatur Street. How many customers had she attracted this time—twenty, twenty-five, thirty?
She shook the imitation marble dish that served as a till, taking a mental count of the contents -- maybe twenty-five dollars, much less than usual but she had gained in other ways. At least she had a name. Antonio.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” the woman asked again, still hovering.
Armelle nodded. “I’m fine, really. I’m not used to the heat. Thanks anyways.”
“I couldn’t do what you do in these temperatures,” the woman said. “I almost hate to leave the air conditioning to go outside. How do you southerners stand it?”
“Actually, I’m from the north,” Armelle told her. “I’ve been here on a study visa for three years.”
She attempted to straighten her wings with a shrug. Those heavily feathered monstrosities, bought from a lady who made Mardi Gras floats, drooped over her shoulders on their broad elastic harness. After securing the fastenings, she stooped to pick up the crate and bowl, nesting one inside the other and covering both with the white canvas cloth. Now she could use her free hand to lift the long starched gown high enough to keep from tripping.
Turning, she dropped a practiced bow to the woman and her daughter and prepared to make her way home. Pulling herself upright, she took a deep breath and walked down St.Philip Street with slow, measured steps, masking her fall with some semblance of dignity. She’d remain in character all the way home. Part theatrics, part good business, she fixed a glazed stare on the path ahead and walked as if with unseeing eyes.
People did a double-take and moved from her path. In New Orleans, where dressing up was part of the culture, the sight of a stone angel walking the streets in her own solitary procession still had an unsettling effect. Old Mr. Benjamin, who took visitors for rides in his mule-drawn wagon, always crossed himself when he saw her coming. Cindy Murphy, who took the tourists for walking tours through the French Quarter, as did Armelle twice a week, addressed her clients in hushed tones when the Frozen Angel walked by. At dusk, like now, when her costume took on a ghostly sheen, people scattered from her path.
Amazing to have such power through illusion. Respect, Armelle, decided, as she crossed Royal Street. They respected what she represented--one of those strong, dignified guardians of forever that perched atop the cities of the dead. But today, as she walked home slightly weak and uncommonly weary, her angel stumbling, she felt the presence of another weighing her down. Whoever or whatever the identity of that woman who spoke to Antonio, Armelle sensed their fates were inextricably connected. They shared something with that man, something that could survive time itself.
Her reflection in the shop windows showed a tipsy-looking angel with one wing askew. How fitting. She took a deep breath and carried on, trying to fortify herself with visions of stone dignity while blocking away the memory of an unknown man admonishing her for treachery.