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Creek Running North

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August 30, 2005

May 1984

Elissa and Matthew and I had been crammed into the little Civic hatchback for two days almost non-stop from Berkeley - excepting five hours' motel rest in El Paso - to get to Rockport, Texas, not far from Corpus Christi. My mother and sister were living there at the time. We arrived at two in the morning, and then my mother woke us at six to go to a gallery opening at which her name would be mentioned in the thank you speech. We spent two, maybe three days in Rockport. I don't remember. And then east, driving toward Galveston eating gigantic shrimp. We were thoroughly sick of it by lunchtime. We threw much of it to the gulls riding the bow wave on the Galveston ferry.

We accidentally left the restaurant in Lafayette without leaving a tip. I still feel a twinge of guilt for that.

We reached New Orleans past midnight, and we looked for a cheap motel near Tulane. We found one, but it was full and decrepit and forty dollars a night besides. We headed across Ponchartrain to a campground in Slidell. Three of us crowded into my tiny red puptent.

That was stupid, and at about five I crawled back out to sleep on the ground under the pine trees, although sleep was suddenly hard to come by. Doghair pines and soft ground beneath a carpet of needles a foot thick notwithstanding, there were frogs, and woodpeckers, and egrets, and a great blue heron that I would have woken Matthew for had I not been terrified of Elissa's wrath.

A few hours later they woke up. We struck camp and headed back across the lake.

There was a nice restaurant on Chartres next to Jackson Square. We ordered breakfast. Red beans and rice for me, and coffee. And, what the hell, a mint julep. "That's not really a New Orleans thing," said Matthew. "Shut up," I agreed. The waiter smiled and brought it all out.

I didn't listen to their conversation. I was watching the park, thinking of people lost and left behind.

Elissa had heard of the French Market, and off we walked. The line moved quickly. A dozen beignets and three more cups of chicory coffee later, we were completely touristified. Elissa sipped her coffee, made a face, handed it to me with a shudder. Oh, well, more for me, I thought, until I remembered the tablespoon of sugar she'd put in there. We headed for the river.

There was a big smiling musician on the levee, playing steel drum for the tourists. His accent didn't seem local, neither NOLA nor Lousiana creole. He may have been Haitian. He played that well-known Caribbean anthem "In The Mood." He somehow added an extra measure between each break. Matthew, a Californian farther east than he ever had been before, stuck his foot into the Mississippi just so he could say he had. He joked about chloracne for the rest of the trip.

We walked into the Vieux Carré. Elissa, a fan of Zora Neale Hurston, pulled us into a voodoo store, not that she needed any help in that regard. She browsed the hexes and charms, the little bags to be filled with salt and placed beneath the doormat of unwelcome neighbors. I looked at the figurines of loas, the old voodoo spirits of which practitioners beg favor. The figurines were roughly built and attractive, cloth scraps and dots of paint on old wood. I looked in my wallet. Not enough for Legba; not even enough for Damballah. I put them back and vowed to return someday.

After an hour, we found the car. Lightning followed us, and we made Chattanooga before collapsing again.

Legba is the only loa that gives a shit about the likes of us. He is good, wise, compassionate. The others can sometimes be swayed to act out of boredom, or in return for future favors. When appealing to their mercies, watch your back. Sogbo is the loa of lightning. Bade, the wind loa, travels with Sogbo. Agua is angry, a muscular black man with fire in his eyes. When Sogbo and Bade work with Agua, the thunderstorms come. Damballah manifests as a king cobra, and rules the water in the sky. He controls the river and springs, the flows that come up from the sodden ground: it all comes from his domain. Though he is remote and dispassionate, his heart is pure. He is associated with predestination. You can find him in your Creole voodoo glossary just before the phrase "Dans l' Fond d'l'eau."

To entreat Damballah one can offer him a large bowl of water. The water should be scrupulously clean.

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