Una Probada de Sangre y Altares

In the spring, families in the suburbs of New OrleansMetarie, Jefferson, Lafayettehang wreaths on their front doors. Gay purple straw wreaths of yellow and purple and green, wreaths with bells and froths of ribbons trailing down, blowing, tangling in the warm wind. The children have king cake parties. Each slice of cake is covered with a different sweet, sticky toppingcandied cherries and colored sugar are favoritesand the child who finds a pink plastic baby in his slice will enjoy a year of good luck. The baby represents the infant Christ, and children seldom choke on it. Jesus loves little children.

The adults buy spangled cat's-eye masks for masquerades, and other women's husbands pull other men's wives to them under cover of Spanish moss and anonymity, hot silk and desperate searching tongues and the wet ground and the ghostly white scent of magnolias opening in the night, and the colored paper lanterns on the verandah in the distance.

In the French Quarter the liquor flows like milk and strings of bright cheap beads hang from wrought iron balconies, adorn sweaty necks, scatter in the street, the royalty of gutter trash, gaudy among the cigarette butts and cans and plastic Hurricane glasses. The sky is purple, the flare of a match behind a cupped hand is yellow, the liquor is green, bright green, made from a thousand herbs, made from altars. Those who know well enough to drink Chartreuse at Mardi Gras are lucky, because the distilled essence of the town burns in their bellies. Chartreuse glows in the dark, and if you drink enough of it, your eyes will turn bright green.

Christian's bar was way down Chartres away from the middle of the Quarter, toward Canal Street. It was only nine-thirty. None one ever came in until ten, not even on Mardi Gras nights, no one except the thin little girl in the black silk dress, the thin little girl with the short, soft brown hair that fell in a curtain across her eyes. Christian always wanted to brush it away from her face, feel it trickle through his fingers like rain. Tonight, as usual, she slipped in at nine-thirty and looked around for the friends who were never there, and the wind blew the French Quarter in behind her, Rue de Chartres warm as the night air slipped away toward the river, smelling of spice and fried oysters and rum and the dust of ancient bones stolen and violated. When she saw Christian standing alone behind the bar, narrow and white with his black hair glittering on his shoulders, she came and hopped onto a bar stool — she had to boost herself — and said, as she did most nights, "Can I have a screwdriver?"

"Just how old are you, love?" Christian asked, as he did most nights.

"Twenty." She was lying by at least four years, but her voice was so soft that he had to listen with his whole cupped ear to hear it, and her arms on the bar were thin and downed with fine blonde hairs, and the big smudges of dark makeup like bruises around her eyes, the ratty bangs and the bare feet with their toenails painted orange only made her look more childlike. He made the drink weak and put two cherries in it. She fished the cherries out with her fingers and ate them one by one, sucking them like candy, before she started sipping her drink.

Christian knew the girl came to his bar because the drinks were cheap and he would serve them to her with no questions to piss her off, no questions about I.D. or why a pretty girl wanted to drink alone on the last night of Mardi Gras. She always turned with a start every time the door opened, and her hand flew to her throat. "Who are you waiting for?" Christian asked her the first time she came in.

"The vampires," she told him, and came back the next night and the next, always alone, even at Mardi Gras. The black silk dress left her throat and arms bear. She smoked Marlboro Lights. Christian told her that only virgins are known to smoke those, and she blushed, and came in the next night with a pack of Camels. She said her name was Jessy, and Christian only smiled at her joke about the vampires, because he didn't know how much she knew. And she had pretty ways, and a sweet shy smile, and she was a tiny brightness in every ashen empty night. He certainly wasn't going to bite her.

The vampires got into town sometime before midnight. The three of them got hold of a bottle of Chartreuse and reeled down Bourbon Street swigging it by turns, their arms around one another's shoulders, their hair in one another's face. They had outlined their features in dark blots of makeup, and their hair was tangled in great clumps, and their pockets were stuffed with candy which they ate noisily, washing it down with sweet green mouthfuls of Chartreuse. Their names were Molochai, Twig, and Zillah, and they wish they had fangs but had to make do with teeth, and they could walk in sunlight as their great-grandfathers could not. But they preferred to roam at night, and as they roamed unsteadily down Bourbon Street they sang:

"O show us the way to the
next whiskey bar
O don't ask why
O don't ask why
For if we don't find the
next whiskey bar
I tell you we must die
I tell you we must die"

and Molochai peeled the wrapper off a HoHo and crammed as much of it into his mouth as he could and kept singing, spraying Twig with crumbs of chocolate.

"Give me a bite," Twig demanded. Molochai scooped some of the HoHo out of his mouth and offered it to Twig. Twig laughed helplessly, clamped his lips shut and shook his head, finally relented and licked the creamy paste of Molochai's fingers.

"Vile dogs," said lovely Zillah with the sexless face, with the eyes as green as the last drop of Chartreuse in the bottle. Zillah's hands gave away his gender; they were large and strong and heavily veined below the thin white skin. He wore his nails long and pointed, and he wore his hair tied back with a purple silk scarf. Wisps of the ponytail had escaped, framing the stunning face, the achingly green eyes.

"Shut up, beautiful," said Molochai happily, and bared his teeth at a tall boy in full Nazi uniform. Molochai's teeth were unremarkable except for the film of chocolate that webbed them, but some small bloodlust in his eyes made the boy turn away, looking for trouble somewhere else, someplace that vampires would not want to go.

They made their way through the gaudy throngs to the sidewalk, bracing themselves against the posters that screamed MEN WILL TURN INTO WOMEN BEFORE YOUR EYES!!!, pictures of blondes with tired breasts and five o'clock shadows. They stumbled past racks of postcards, racks of T-shirts, a bar that served drinks to passersby on the sidewalk like a hot dog stand. Overhead, fireworks blossomed and turned the sky purple with their smoke, and the air was thick with smoke and liquor and breathe and river-mist, and Molochai let his head fall back on Twig's shoulder and looked up at the sky, and the fireworks dazzled his eyes. They left the sleazy lights of Bourbon Street behind, swayed left onto dark Conti and right onto Chartres. Soon enough they found a tiny bar with stained glass windows and a friendly light inside, and the sign above the door said CHRISTIAN'S and had a tiny moon and star painted on it, so they went in.

They sat on three bar stools and drank another bottle of Chartreuse and whispered to each other, looking at Christian, laughing, shrugging. His forehead was very high and pale and his nails were as long and pointed as Zillah's. "Maybe — " said Molochai, and Twig said, "Test him." They paid no attention to Jessy, although she stared at them ceaselessly, her eyes bright, her lips moist and slightly parted. But when Christian gave them their tab, Molochai dug deep in his pocket and produced a coin. He did not put the coin in Christian's hand, put held it up to the light so that Christian might look well at it. It was a silver doubloon, of the sort that are thrown from Mardi Gras parade floats, along with the treasure trove of other trinkets — the beads, the bright toys, the sweet sugar candy. But this doubloon was heavier, and far, far older. Christian could not make out the year; the silver was scarred, tarnished, smudged with Molochai's sticky fingerprints. But he picture was still clear: a man, a beautiful man with enormous sensuous lips. Lips that would be red as blood, were they not carved in cold heavy silver; lips pricked by long, sharp teeth. Below the man's face, in ornate letters, the word BACCHUS curved.

"How — how do you come?" Christian stammered.

Molochai smiled his chocolaty smile. "In peace," he said. And he did not take his eyes from Christian's as he picked up the empty Chartreuse bottle and broke it against the bar and drew a razor edge of the glass across the soft skin of his right wrist. A shallow crimson mouth opened there, nearly obscene in its brightness. And Molochai, still smiling, offered his wrist to Christian. And Christian pressed his lips to the gash and closed his eyes and sucked like a baby, tasting the Garden of Eden in the drops of Chartreuse that mingled with Molochai's blood.

Twig watched for a few moments, his eyes dark, his face lost, bewildered. Then he picked up Molochai's left arm and bit at the skin of the wrist until the blood flowed there too, and his hand clutched Molochai's as if Twig were drowning, and the tears that beaded Twig's eyelashes were tears of comfort, of joy, of blissful safety.

Jessy watched with eyes wide and disbelieving. She saw the mouth of dignified Christian smeared with blood, trembling with passion. She saw Twig's teeth at Molochai's wrist, saw the flesh part and the blood flow. And her stomach clenched and her mouth watered and a secret message traveled from the softest fold between her legs to the deepest whorl of her brain — the vampires! the VAMPIRES! And she stood up very quietly, and then the bloodlust she wanted so badly was on her, and she leapt and tore Molochai's arm away from Twig and tried to fasten her lips on the gash — but Molochai turned furiously on her and batted her away, hard across the face, and she felt the pain in her lip before she tasted the blood there, her own dull blood in her mouth. And Molochai and Twig and even kind Christian stood staring at her, bloodied and wild-eyed, like dogs interrupted at a kill, like interrupted lovers. And as she backed away from them, a pair of warm arms went around her from behind and a pair of large, strong hands caressed her through the silk dress and a voice whispered, "His blood is sticky-sweet anyway, my dear — I can give you something better."

She never knew Zillah's name, nor how she ended up with him on a blanket in the back room of Christian's bar. She only knew that her blood was smeared across his face, an that his fingers and his tongue explored her body more thoroughly than any had before, and that once she thought he was inside her and she was inside him at once, and that his sperm smelled like altars, and that his hair drifted across her eyes as she went to sleep. It was one of the rare nights that Molochai, Twig, and Zillah spent apart. Zillah slept on the blanket with Jessy, hidden between cases of whiskey, cupping her breasts in his hands. Molochai slept in Christian's room above the bar with Christian and Twig cuddled close to him, their mouths working sleepily at his wrists. And below, far away on Bourbon Street, the mounted police rode their highstepping steeds through the crowd, chanting, "Leave the street. Mardi Gras is officially over. Leave the street. Mardi Gras is officially over," each one ready with a sap for a drunken skull. And the sun came up on the Wednesday morning trash in the gutters, the butts and the cans and the gaudy, forgotten beads, and the vampires slept with their lovers, for they preferred to do their roaming at night.

Molochai, Twig, and Zillah left town the next evening after the sun went down, so they never even knew that Jessy was pregnant. None of them had ever witnessed the birth of a vampire baby, but they all knew that their mothers had died in childbirth; they would not have stayed around. Christian knew all of this. He kept Jessy anyway, feeding her the richest food he could afford, letting her wash out the bar glasses when she insisted on earning her keep. Sometimes, remembering Molochai's blood smeared around Christian's mouth, Jessy crept into Christian's bed and sat on top of him until he could make love to her. He would not bite her, and for that she beat at his face with her fists until he slapped her and told her to stop. Then she moved quietly over him, and he watched her grow gravid through the sweltering oily summer months, lazily shaped her swollen belly and distended breasts with his hands. When her time came, he poured whiskey down her throat like water. It wasn't enough. She screamed until she could scream no more, and her eyes showed only the whites with their silvery rims, and great gouts of blood poured from her. When the baby slipped from Jessy, its head turned and its eyes opened and met Christian's. Confused. Intelligent. Innocent. And a shred of bright pink tissue was caught in the tiny mouth, softening between the working gums. Christian separated the baby from Jessy and wrapped it in a blanket and held it up to the window; if its first sight was the French Quarter, it would know its way around those streets forever. Then he knelt between Jessy's limp legs and looked at the poor torn passage that had given him so many nights of idle pleasure, ruined now, bloody. So much blood. Christian licked his lips, licked them again.

Christian's bar was closed for ten nights. Christian's car headed north, down any road that looked anonymous, along any highway he knew he would not remember again.

Little Nothing was a lovely baby, a sugar-candy confection of a baby with enormous dark blue eyes and a mass of golden-brown hair. Someone would love him. Someone human, away from the South, away from the hot night air and the legends. Nothing might escape the hunger for blood, might be happy, might be whole.

Toward dawn, in a Maryland suburb of fine graceful houses, dark grassy lawns, long sleek cars in sweeping driveways, a thin white figure draped in black darted, stooped, set a bundle down on a doorstep and went slowly away without looking back. Christian was thinking of the last night of Mardi Gras, and the taste of blood and altars was in his mouth.

The baby Nothing opened his eyes and saw darkness, soft and velvety, pricked with sparkling white light. His mouth drew down; his eyebrows came together in a frown. He was hungry. He could not see the basket that cradled him, could not read the note in spidery ornate handwriting pinned to his blanket: "His name is Nothing. Care for him and he will bring you luck."

He lay in the basket snug as a king cake baby, pink and tiny as the infant Christ in plastic, and he knew only that he wanted light and warmth and food, as a baby will. And he opened his mouth wide and showed his sort pink gums and yelled. He yelled long and loud until the door opened and warm hands took him in.

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