The tram hasn’t even rolled to a complete stop before I leap out the door onto the asphalt; squealing as it burns through the soles of my thin, dainty sandals in its quest to slowly release the scorching heat of the sun. The lights, sounds and smells of the city assault my senses and I fling my arms out, raise my face to the sky and twirl in a circle letting the place, once again, accost me; overwhelm me; take me. As my skirt flies out around me, I breathe in deeply smelling the sweet scent of jasmine and roses on the breeze mixed with the putrid odour of manure caked into the road. Laughing, I lower my arms and smooth my skirt, taking in the sights and sounds of the French Quarter once again. People jostle past me, chattering loudly and aimlessly as they go about their business. No one minds the quiet girl standing alone in the middle of the street laughing and rejoicing alone. That doesn’t bother me – I’m just so happy to be back in New Orleans once again.
The blast of a horn startles me from my trance, reminding me that I’m standing in the middle of a road. Hurrying to the footpath, I try to gather my thoughts, taking in the unfamiliar shop fronts and buildings with new eyes. Where am I anyway? I muse to myself, feeling the familiar panic starting to rise in my chest. People continue to pass me by; their shoulders brushing against me, their eyes averted as they hurry along. Reaching out, I try and grab some attention, hoping someone will tell me where I am. One by one they shrug me off, avoiding meeting my desperate gaze or responding to my pleading tone. My gaze darts furtively around, seeking a familiar landmark to no avail.
Sweeping the streetscape I take in the old, faded buildings around me; their rickety balconies littered with people enjoying the warm night air. The streets are full of people – businessmen and women, children, families, tourists – all chattering away and ignoring my frantic search. The streetlights have turned on in the increasingly encroaching darkness of night; their small glass panels emitting a weak, warm glow that gets lost in the bright spotlights of the restaurants, voodoo shops and chic boutiques that line the road. All except one… My attention focuses on one streetlight in particular whose light is luminous, brilliant and enticing. Making an unconscious decision, my feet begin to move towards the light; my eyes fixated on what it reveals
She sits there, hunched over. The bright light does nothing to hide the harsh lines of age that weather her face. Her body is encased in a dark aubergine shawl; it’s girth hiding away any form or feature of the human body that lies beneath it. But none of that is particularly shocking. What captivates me is her eyes – a bright, piercing blue that seemed to scorch right through me. Hypnotised by her gaze I move slowly forward, unable to break the stare, unable to look away. She seems to beckon me; call to me. I move through the crowd silently and seamlessly; their bodies parting naturally to allow me through.
As I get closer and closer to her I start to make out more features – the dark smattering of freckles that adorn her nose, the small hunchback that stoops her posture, the aged assortment of rings and jewellery that embellish her hands, wrists and neck. Slowly, she reaches her gnarled hand out to me. Without a question I take it; surprised at the softness of her old, wrinkled, calloused hands. Turning on her heel, she starts to pull me along behind her.
I know I should break away; I know this is wrong. I’m so far from home in a place I’ve only been once before. But I can’t seem to break away. It’s as if she’s held me under some sort of spell. Ducking through an alleyway, she drags me under an old, faded fascia and inside a bleak, dusty room.
“I will give you tonight to dance.” She says softly, her heavily accented voice croaky with age. “Do not waste it.” With that, she was gone.
Confused, I look around me. Where had I let her take me? What in the world was I thinking? The room looked like it had been shut up for eons – the furniture was draped in dusty white sheets; the heavy drapes faded and crusted with age and neglect. A large candle provided a soft glow to my surroundings as it flickered and flared as the dust I stirred up reached its tip. Despite my apprehension, I couldn’t help wondering what had happened here to erode such beauty. Beside the candle lay a dress bag. As I unzipped it, I gasped in amazement as the red, silky layers of the dress emerged. It fell to the ground; its bodice laced tightly at the back and embodied with tiny little flowers and gems that looked suspiciously like diamonds. As I struggled into it, I reached down to the large box that lay on the table beside the bag, tying the red, feathered mask tightly behind my head.
Time to go.
The skirt swished softly through my legs, its soft folds melting into my skin and becoming a part of me. I felt beautiful, mysterious and wise all at once. I felt like I was a part of this place. Walking out of the alley back into the street I was amazed at the transformation. No longer did families, tourists, locals traverse the street. Now the road was filled with masked suitors and belles. The tinkling laughter of the women floated on the warm evening breeze and became one with the deep, throbbing timbre of the men. The clink of champagne glasses resounded through the air and accentuated the soft, dulcet tones of the jazz music being played from a makeshift stage.
“May I have this dance?” The voice cut through my consciousness, it’s deep tenor sending thrills down my spine.
“Of course.” I replied, breathlessly, placing my hand in his and letting me lead me into the middle of the road. Looking up into his face, I took in the deep, chocolate brown eyes behind his black mask. His jaw was strong and chiselled, yet too be etched with the lines of age. I furrowed my brow in confusion. I almost felt as if I knew this handsome stranger.
“Welcome home.” He whispered as he whisked me away into a waltz.
Looking around, I realised I was home. The little old lady stood on the sidewalk and smiled at me, nodding as she watched the realisation dawn on my face.
I was never leaving here. This had been the last night of my life 98 years ago. And I was doomed to repeat it again and again; never moving on.
Sighing, I relaxed into my partner. At least I’d forget in the morning and experience the fun and excitement anew.
Photo Credit: http://desirablenightmare.deviantart.com/art/Masquerade-73296194