In an alternate New Orleans caught in the tangle of the American Civil War, the wall-scaling girl named Creeper yearns to escape the streets for the air—in particular, by earning a spot on-board the airship Midnight Robber. Creeper plans to earn Captain Ann-Marie’s trust with information she discovers about a Haitian scientist and a mysterious weapon he calls The Black God’s Drums.
But Creeper also has a secret herself: Oya, the African orisha of the wind and storms, speaks inside her head, and may have her own ulterior motivations.
Soon, Creeper, Oya, and the crew of the Midnight Robber are pulled into a perilous mission aimed to stop the Black God’s Drums from being unleashed and wiping out the entirety of New Orleans.
The night in New Orleans always got something going on, ma maman used to say—like this city don’t know how to sleep. You want a good look, take the cable-elevator to the top of one of Les Grand Murs, where airships dock on the hour. Them giant iron walls ring the whole Big Miss on either side. Up here you can see New Algiers on the West Bank, its building yards all choked in factory smoke and workmen scurrying round the bones of new-built vessels like ants. Turn around and there’s the downtown wards lit up with gas lamps like glittering stars. You can make out the other wall in the east over at Lake Borgne, and a fourth one like a crescent moon up north round Swamp Pontchartrain—what most folk call La Ville Morte, the Dead City.
Les Grand Murs were built by Dutchmen to protect against the storms that come every year. Not the regular hurricanes neither, but them tempêtes noires that turn the skies into night for a whole week. I was born in one of the big ones some thirteen years back in 1871. The walls held in the Big Miss but the rain and winds almost drowned the city anyway, filling it up like a bowl. Ma maman pushed me out her belly in that storm, clinging to a big sweet gum tree in the middle of thunder and lightning. She said I was Oya’s child—the goddess of storms, life, death, and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik, and who runs strong in our blood. Ma maman said that’s why I take to high places so, looking to ride Oya’s wind.
Les Grand Murs was where I call home these days. It’s not the finest accommodations: drafty on winter nights and so hot in the summer all you do is lay about in your own sweat. But lots of street kids set up for themselves up here. Better than getting swept into workhouse orphanages or being conscripted to steal for a Thieving Boss.
Me, I marked out a prime spot: an alcove just some ways off from one of the main airship mooring masts. That’s where the gangplanks are laid down for disembarking passengers heading into the city. Concealed in my alcove, I can see them all: in every colour and shade, in every sort of dress, talking in more languages than I can count, their voices competing with the rattle of dirigible engines and the hum of ship propellers. It always gets me to thinking on how there’s a whole world out there, full of all kinds of people. One day, I dream, I’m going to get on one of those airships. I’ll sail away from this city into the clouds and visit all the places there are to visit, and see all the people there are to see. Of course, watching from my alcove is also good for marking out folk too careless with their purses, luggage and anything else for the taking. Because in New Orleans, you can’t survive on just dreams.
My eyes latch onto a little dandy-looking man in a rusty plaid suit, with slicked back shiny brown hair and a curly moustache. He got a tight grip on his bags, but there’s a golden pocket watch dangling on a chain at his side. A clear invitation if I ever seen one. Somebody’s bound to snatch it sooner or later—might as well be me.
I’m about to set out to follow him when the world suddenly slows. The air, sounds, everything. It’s like somebody grabbed hold of time and stretched her out at both ends. I turn, slow-like, to look out from the wall as a monstrous moon begins to rise into the sky. No, not a moon, I realize in fright—a skull! A great big bone white skull that fills up the night. It pushes itself up past the horizon to cast a shadow over the city underneath, where the gaslights snuff out one by one. I gape at that horrible face, stripped clean of skin or flesh, that stares back with deep empty black sockets and a grin of bared teeth. It’s all I can do not to fall to my knees.
“Not real!” I whisper, shutting my eyes to make the apparition go away. I count to ten in my head, whispering all the while: “Not real! Not real! Not real!”
When I open my eyes again, the skull moon is gone. Time has caught up to normal too—the sounds of the night returning in a rush. And the city is there, spread out again: breathing, shining and alive. I release a breath. This was all Oya’s doing, I know. The goddess has strange ways of talking. Not the first time I’ve been sent one of her visions—though never anything so strong. Never anything that felt so real. They’re what folk call premonitions: warnings of things about to happen or things soon to come. Most times I can figure them out quick. But a giant skull moon? I got no damn idea what that’s supposed to mean.
“You could just talk to me plain,” I mutter in irritation. But Oya doesn’t answer. She’s already humming a song that whistles in my ears. It’s about her mother Yemoja leading some lost fishermen to shore. The moon is Yemoja’s domain, after all. Giving up, I turn back, hoping to find my mark again—but instead, I’m startled by the sound of footsteps.
My whole body goes still. Not just footsteps but boots, by the way they fall heavy. More than one pair too. I curse at my bad luck, ducking back down into my alcove. I chose this spot special, because it’s some ways off from the usual paths people take—just near enough for me to see them, but far enough to keep out of their way. No one ever comes this far out, to this part of the wall. But those steps are getting closer, heading right for me! Cursing my luck twice again, I scramble back to huddle into a far corner of the alcove, where the shadows fall deep. I’m small enough to curl into a ball if I draw my knees up under me. And if I go real still, I might escape without being seen. I might.
I’m expecting constables. Rare to see any of them up here, but could be the city’s decided to do a sweep for one reason or the other. Maddi grá coming up, and they like to make everything look respectable to visitors—respectable for New Orleans, anyway. Maybe someone’s complained about all the street kids up here picking pockets. Or worse yet, could be the city’s workhouses and factories need more small hands to run their machines—machines that seem to delight in stealing fingers. I grit my teeth and ball up my fists as if trying to protect my own fingers, not daring to breathe. Damn sure ain’t going to end up in one of those places.
But the figures that enter my alcove aren’t constables. They’re men, though, about five of them. I can’t make them out in the dark, but by their height and the way they walk they have to be men. They’re not wearing the telltale blue uniforms of constables though, with the upside down gold crescent and five-pointed star stitched on their shoulders. These men are wearing dull faded gray uniforms that almost blend into the dark. Their jackets got patches on the front that I recognize right off: white stars in a blue cross like an X over a bed of red, the letters CSA stitched underneath. The brisk twangs that roll off their tongues are Southern, but like those uniforms, certainly nothing made in New Orleans.
“Alright then,” one of them says. “You can get us what we want?”
“Deal already set up, Capitaine,” another voice answers, real casual-like. This one’s a Cajun. I’d recognize that bayou accent anywhere. I lift my chin off my knees to risk a peek from under the lid of my cap. The one talking that Cajun talk ain’t got on a uniform. He’s wearing some old brown pants and a red shirt with suspenders. I still can’t make out any faces, but can see a mop of white hair on his head almost down to his shoulders. “Dat scientist be here next day, on a morning airship from Haiti. Gonna see to meeting him myself.”
My ears perk up at that. A Haitian scientist? Meeting with these men?
“How long we have to wait?” a third voice asks. This one’s impatient, almost whining. “Captain, we don’t need all this fuss. I say we just take snatch him when he gets here. Put him on our ship and fly off. Have him in Charleston in no time.”
The Cajun makes a tsking sound. “Ma Lay! Do dat, brudda, and you get de constables involved. Dey gonna cost you mo dan I do. Not how we do tings down here, no.”
“Seems all you folk do in this city is drink and gamble and eat,” the third voice sneers.
The Cajun chuckles. “We like to pass a good time. Make music and babies too.”
The first voice, the one both men called Captain, steps in then. Sounds like he’s trying to keep things from boiling over. I glance to those black-booted feet, realizing I hadn’t pulled my sleeping blanket into the corner with me. That was careless. But nothing I can do about it now. My heart beats faster, hoping none of them steps on it or bothers to look down.
“So after this scientist gets here,” the captain is saying, “then what?”
“When he get settled, I set up de meeting between the two of you,” the Cajun answers. There’s a pause. “You got what he coming all dis way to get? You don’t deliver, he might run.”
“We got his jewel, alright,” the third voice says in his usual sneer.
The Cajun claps, and I imagine him smiling. “Den it should work out fine.” He extends a hand and the captain offers over a thick wad of something. The unmistakable beautiful sound of crisp bills being counted fills up my alcove.
“You’ll get the rest when we see this scientist—and his invention,” the captain states.
“Wi, Capitaine,” the Cajun replies. “You give him his jewel and he gonna hand over dat ting you want.” He stops his counting and leans in close. “De Black God’s Drums. Maybe you boys able to win dis war yet, yeah.”
The captain dips his head in a nod before answering. “Maybe.”
There’s some more talk. Nothing important from what I can tell. Just the questions and assurances of men who don’t trust each other and who up to no good. But I’m only half-listening by now. My mind is on the words the Cajun said: the Black God’s Drums. With a Haitian scientist involved, that can only mean one thing. And if I’m right, that’s big. Bigger than any marks I was going to pinch tonight. This is information that’s gonna be valuable to somebody. I just need to figure out who’ll pay the highest price. Long after the men leave my alcove, I sit there thinking hard in the dark as Oya hums in my head.
Two nights later, it’s all hustle and bustle the Sunday before the Maddi grá. Most times like now I’d be mixed up in all that tumult, getting ready to strut and sashay with the best of them. But not tonight. Tonight, I got a meeting. And some information to sell—or trade.
I cut through the Quarter, to get a glimpse of some of the action—and mostly to do some light pocket-picking along the way. I’m small enough not to get noticed. Just a bit of Oya’s wind is more than ample to send wallets or bills flying. The goddess disapproves of my using her gift this way, and tells me as much, tickling the way she do in my head. But she also understands I got to keep my belly full, and lets me do as I need. Makes her grumble some, but I don’t pay her no mind.
I change my route when I catch sight of some Bakers though. Their faces are powdered with flour to match their white jackets and pants; only bit of colour on them are the blood red kerchiefs around their necks and the rouge on their cheeks. They swagger about, thumbing the handles of flat wooden paddles fitted into belts at their waists: whole lot of them just itching for a fight. The Guildes of New Orleans are out strong tonight—Bakers, Boilermakers, Mechanics, you name it—and touchy about their territory. Then again, when ain’t they? There’ll be some blood flowing before the dawn come, you just watch. And that kind of trouble I can do without.
It’s as I’m trying to duck away from them that I end up running into someone. Usually Oya’s gift lets me move light on my feet, so that I slip around and about other people like a passing breeze. But this time it don’t work for some reason. I hit the other person head on, so hard it sends me bouncing off him to fall right on my backside. Blinking, I look up to find a tall skinny man in a tight black suit, like what the morticians who run the city’s best funeral parlors wear. When I see his face, I almost try to scramble back and away. It’s a skull, bone white and grinning like the one in my vision! Only this isn’t no phantom. You don’t bounce off phantoms, I tell myself, trying to be sensible. Looking closer, I realize his face is really a mask—white bones painted on black cloth.
I breathe easier, feeling kind of foolish. It’s a little early for masking, true. But no accounting for when some folk decide to start their Maddi grá. The man tilts his head to the side to peer down at me, with blue eyes like chipped bits of ice.
“Best watch where you going, cher,” he scolds playfully, stressing that last word as he takes in my clothing. He extends a suntanned hand towards me, with long spidery fingers and red tattoos painted on the knuckles. I’m about to accept his help when Oya hisses loud in my head. Dammit! It hurts! It sounds like a rising wind in a fierce storm moving through trees, or blasting down a corridor between buildings. I snatch my hand back, just to make it stop. Something in those icy eyes turns hot for a moment, but the man just drops his hand to his side and laughs—a cackle coming from behind that grinning skull that raises up bumps on my skin.
“Suit yourself den, cher,” he shrugs. Moving around me where I still sit, he makes his way down the street. He don’t walk, though. Instead, he does a funny little soft shuffling dance with his feet while mouthing the words to some tune I never heard before:
Remember New Orleans I say,
Where Jackson show’d them Yankee play,
And beat them off and gain’d the day,
And then we heard the people say
Huzza! for Gen’ral Jackson!
I shake my head. An unusual fellow, no doubting it. Probably why Oya took a disliking to him. She can be particular like that. But being strange ain’t no crime. Not in New Orleans. Could be he got something to do with the vision she sent me two days back. Or she think he do. Only, he ain’t the first or last skeleton I’m gonna see at Maddi grá. Can’t go off chasing after every one just to figure out what’s got her so prickly. My hands full as it is. Picking myself up, I spare one last glance for the odd man then turn and set out again on my business.
By the time I reach Madamesville I can hear the bells at Saint Louis tolling the hour. I stop once to let a mudbug scuttle down Robertson. Its six iron legs clang heavy on the cobblestones while curving pipes on its back belch out black smoke, looking like some big old crawfish what crawled out the bayou. The constable driving the thing squints my way through a pair of bronze goggles. He looks me over once, then turns back in his cushioned seat to continue his rounds without stopping. No time for a street rat like me when there’ll be all kinds of mayhem out tonight. I cross behind him and arrive at my destination.
Shá Rouj isn’t the best bordello in Madamesville, certainly nothing like the big mansions up on Basin Street. But it ain’t one of the tucked away 50-cent joints either, that some say got more rats than ladies. Madame Diouf keeps it nice, with bright cherry red paint and white shutters, all behind fancy iron railings that twist and curve into ivies. A great big cat’s head, painted black in a red top hat and a gold monocle, grins down at me from the roof and winks a lazy mechanical eye. I tip my cap and wink back for luck before stepping through the front door.
The stink of cigars and too-sweet perfume hits me right off and I wrinkle my nose at the mix. The house is full tonight, more than usual. There’s men sitting on rose-coloured sofas and chairs or standing about—drinking whiskey and rum, keeping up a loud chatter that rolls and echoes about the room. The women on their laps don’t wear much beyond stockings, frills, and lace corsets, but their painted faces are always smiling. I see one tug her ear and a server man in a white wig, bright gold breeches, and a long fancy red coat—with tails even—rushes to keep everybody’s cups full.
Shá Rouj was built to look like free New Orleans. It lets in men of any colour and offers women just the same—big Dutch gals, scarlet-haired Irish, dark senoritas, midnight-black Senegalese. And like New Orleans, Shá Rouj is neutral territory. Where else can you find Frenchie corsairs making all nice with British Jack Tars? There’s Prussians, New Mexicans, Gran Columbians—even some Kalifornians, in their peculiar Russian dress. I count about a dozen black men, all showy and boisterous. Haitians by the looks of it, all gussied up in blue and red uniforms.
I pick through the crowd, searching for one face in particular. My eyes fix instead on some men sitting in a corner and drinking quietly—all in familiar dull faded gray uniforms with the Southern Cross battle flag on their sleeves, the words CSA inscribed beneath in red stitching. Confederate States soldiers. Air Force, by the badges on their shoulders. My heart thumps as I wonder if they’re the same ones from the other night in my alcove. Pretty certain no one saw me. But still, I walk the other way, keeping a good bit of distance between us. Funny to find Confederates in here anyway, what with all this open miscegenation. They keep to themselves, their eyes wandering every now and again to a knot of loud-talking officers in unmistakable dark Union blue—New York Bowery Boys by those rough accents and their sheer bawdiness. Any other day these allies and enemies might be at each other’s throats. But tonight they share the same space and mind their manners. Because this is New Orleans—one of the few nonaligned territories in the now broken United States.
New Orleans been free now going on more than two decades—ever since the slave uprising in that first year of the war. Caught the Confederates by surprise. They got so scared, they let the Free Coloured militias join up to help put it down. Only the militias switched over to the slaves and both of them took the city. After that, Union ships and troops came in and got into one big batay with the Confederates. Was them two that burned Old Algiers. New Orleans hunkered down and waited it out. Finally, the Haitians and Brits and Frenchies sent their airships to stop the fighting. Truce was signed making New Orleans a neutral and open port.
Free Coloured men tried to cheat the slaves soon after, hoping to put them back on the plantations. But when it looked like another uprising was brewing, they passed emancipation real quick. A council runs New Orleans today, made up of ex-slaves, mulattoes and white business folk. Brits, Frenchies and Haitians patrol our harbors and skies to keep the peace. Confederates and the Union ain’t had a big tussle in fifteen years—not since the Armistice of Third Antietam. But if that war ever starts back up, New Orleans gonna find herself right in the middle of it again. Folk say that’s why we live every day chasing the good times. Because you never know when the bad might come.
“Goad a’michty!” I look up to find a round splotchy-faced Scotsman in a milk-white suit pointing a thick forefinger at me. Two plump octoroons hang off his arms, with piled up hair and red crescent moons on their cheeks, wearing nothing but frilly pink corsets and black striped stockings. “Lad’s too young to be here, d’ye think?” he protests to no one in particular.
“Not a lad,” I mutter, pulling off my cap to reveal a thick halo of black hair and a nut-brown face.
The Scotsman’s eyes widen then narrow hungrily. Rum and wine got his face as ruddy as his side whiskers. “Hou much for the wee one?” he asks aloud. I think he’s joking. Maybe. Oya don’t. There’s a rumbling thunder in my ear. She’s protective like that.
“Too young for you, sir,” another voice puts in sternly. “And not for sale.”
I turn to find a woman striding down a set of stairs towards us, her hand lightly trailing the wooden bannister. She’d be tall even without the evening heels, with black skin and hair turned a dark smoky gray. Her face is striking, as beautiful as a painting I once seen of the Queen of Sheba. She moves like she’s walking on water, the roomy skirts of her ruffled blue dress swishing about her legs in waves. In my head Oya’s anger settles, and she starts up another song about Yemoja—who tricked her from her throne under the sea.
“Guid eenin Madame Diouf,” the Scotsman greets her, stumbling into a bow that almost topples him. “I meant no offense.”
The proprietor of Shá Rouj blinks once before smiling. I’m always envious when I look into those black eyes, like what I imagine the deepest part of the sea must look like. Mine are murky as swamp water, a plain muddy brown.
“No offense taken, sir,” she croons in her Afrikin accent. “Have you tried the special whiskey I’ve had shipped in? From a distillery in your native country. A place called Orkney? Compliments of the house for you, sir.” The Scotsman’s face lights up and he begins to babble on excitedly about having family from this Orkney, forgetting I’m even there. Madame Diouf listens politely, then at her nod the Scotsman is pulled away by his escorts, their hips swaying with loose flesh that seems to push him along between them. She promptly turns her attention to me, showing an appraising eye. “Little creeping vine. What brings you here tonight?”
“It’s just Creeper, Madame Diouf,” I respond.
The older woman grimaces. “Mondjé! I prefer the name your mother gave you, Jacqueline.” She runs her fingers through my unkempt hair and tugs at the too-big brown coat on my small frame. Oya scowls as deep as I do. We don’t like being fidgeted with. “This hair could use braiding! And what is all this? Where did you get those ridiculous trousers? Do you want to be mistaken for a boy?”
I pull away, putting my cap back on and tucking my hair beneath. “On the streets, better people make that mistake.”
Madame Diouf puts on a severe frown. Damn Afrikin. Even that’s beautiful. “You aren’t out there running with those Guildes, are you?” she asks. “Gangs of thieves and worse!”
“I don’t have nothing to do with any Guildes,” I retort, somewhat offended. As if I’d take on dressing up like one of those clowns.
Madame Diouf looks me over skeptically. Then that beautiful face softens. She leans down, smelling sweet like honey and jasmine. I get dizzy in the haze of her. “You have no need to stay on the street, Jacqueline,” she reminds. “Your mother was like my own daughter. Enough schools in the city to take you in.”
“Tried that already,” I shoot back. “Those girls hold their noses around a pitènn’s daughter.’”
Madame Diouf stands up and lets out a string of curses in her mix of Creole and Afrikin talk. It’s impressive enough to raise my eyebrows. “What nerve!” she huffs. “Mothers just two steps out of chains and they’re putting on airs!” She pats my head again, then runs the back of her long fingers across my cheek. “Well, I’ll have one of the girls set up a bath for you. Have them braid your hair up at least, yes? Get some proper clothes on you too. And stay and take some food. To maig’ comme coucou! Put some fat on those bones!”
By the time I’m led to a kitchen table in the back of the house, I been freshly soaped, scrubbed and washed, and had my hair tied down by thick braids. Kept my own clothes, though. No matter what Madame Diouf think, dresses don’t do me no good on the street. I settle down into a chair and busy myself licking grease off my fingers as I pull meat from a bit of fried pork. Oya’s disappointed there’s no hen. I stay away from the roast mutton, though, which the goddess abhors. Eat that and she’ll have me bringing it back up half the night.
From where I sit I can see everything in the main room. I watch all the cavorting and carrying on as the women of Shá Rouj smile, wink, laugh, and wiggle every bit of money from their customers—who willingly hand it over. Whole lot of these men gonna have lighter pockets by the end of the night, if not plain empty. They may not know it, but as soon as they walked in here, they never had a chance. The group I’m expecting has to be coming here. Got it on good information they would. Just need to bide my time. My doubts are still nagging me when they finally push through the door. I sit up, squinting to make sure. No doubt about it. That’s them.
The first one in is a trim dark-skinned man with long hair like a Choctaw. But he’s a Hindoo I can tell, those other Indians from the Far East. More than a few of the women glance at his pretty face, and he flashes back a smile that makes even me blush. Didn’t even know men could have eyelashes that long. At his side is a tall broad black man with a shadowy beard peppered over with white and a serious-set face. The old-time blue military jacket with gold epaulets marks him as a Haitian; his countrymen in the room raise their drinks in salute and he answers with a deep nod, his stone face unchanging. Behind the men are two more figures: one is the biggest Chinaman I ever put eyes on, wearing a tall wide-brimmed tan cowboy hat, of all things, and a long matching frock coat; the other—she turns out to be exactly who I came all this way to see.
The captain of the airship Midnight Robber is as tall as I remember—not so much as most men, but a good height. She wears snug-fitting tan britches on long lean legs, and the red and green jacket of a Free Isles flyer. Her coils of black hair are pulled back by metal clasps above a dark brown face with the kind of big eyes men like talking about. She scans about, one hand dropping to rest on a pistol at her waist. At a call from the Hindoo, she moves to join her group, walking with a slight limp. The other men in the room look her over, some curious, others admiring. Seems they uncertain if she’s up for sale too. But she ignores them, instead shouting for a drink and settling into a sofa. Some of Shá Rouj’s finest wares soon arrive, one of them squealing as she falls into the captain’s lap. A stab of jealousy from Oya startles me. I push it away, trying to focus.
Now what? The information I got is something I’m certain this group will be keen on. And I have it in my mind to make a trade. But not like this. Too many eyes here. I glance to the Confederates. Seems they noticed the captain too. And they’re doing a bad job at not staring. Definitely too many eyes. No, I’ll have to wait to get her alone. I settle back, finishing my meal and trying to be patient.
I blink awake. Images of me in a burgundy dress dancing with a machete in the middle of a thunderstorm melt away with my dream. I’m thankful at least it’s not about giant skulls in the sky. I curse beneath my breath, though, blaming Madame Diouf a little, and myself more, for dozing off. A hot bath and a full stomach? What was I thinking! Thankfully, I look around to find the crew of the Midnight Robber just where I’d left them. The Hindoo is standing on a table, drunk off his ass and reciting something like he’s a theatre actor. The women around him clap while the Jack Tars roar in approval. But damn my luck, the captain’s gone! I search the room. Could she have returned to her airship? No, not by herself. Remembering the woman in her lap, my gaze moves to an upper floor. Of course.
I push away from the table and walk through the kitchen to the back door. Heading outside, I make a half-circle around Shá Rouj ’til I find a good spot on the railing to pull myself up. My nickname on the streets is Creeper, and for good reason. Just like ma maman in the sweet gum tree, I’m a damn good climber. Got people to saying I remind them of one of those creeping vines that make their way up the side of buildings. Tonight, my nickname does me well. Didn’t want to take the stairs right there in the open. No one’s watching out here, though.
Reaching the second floor I hoist myself onto a balcony and peek inside a window. Some bodies moving in the shadows make Oya titter. Not the right ones, though. Takes about three more bits of peeping ’til I find my captain. She’s lying facedown on a bed, her back rising slightly with her snores. Movement makes me pull away quick. A second woman is getting up from the bed. She moves to bend over a white porcelain basin on a dresser and spends some time washing before slipping her meager clothing back on. After deftly lacing up a frilly corset in a mirror, she stops to lay a kiss on the captain’s bare shoulder before leaving.
Now’s my chance. Pulling open the shutters I lift the window and ease myself into the dark room, taking care not to get my coat caught on anything. When my shoes touch the floorboards there’s a creak that makes me wince, but I gingerly begin to make my way over. My mind races, trying to think of the best way to wake the sleeping woman I’ve gone through all this trouble to see. She solves my dilemma for me.
“Don’t take another blasted step,” a singsong Free Isles accent warns. The captain rises up from the bed and I find myself staring down the skinny barrel of a gold-plated pistol. I can’t help but admire the gilded handiwork—Free Isles issue. She reaches up to turn a handle on the wall, pumping gas into a pair of hanging lamps. We both squint at the brilliance.
“What the ass?” she asks in surprise. “I thinking you is a bandit or a jumbie, but you just a boy?”
“Girl,” I correct, tilting my head to let the light take in my face: baby cheeks, small mouth, round lips and all.
“Girl, then,” the captain repeats, unfazed. She doesn’t even stop to button up her corset. Her large eyes look me up and down, passing judgment. And she hasn’t put the gun away. “Somebody hire you to come here and steal from me nah? Put a knife in me neck?”
I shake my head. That odd bit of jealousy comes again from Oya. But there’s a strange familiarity too. “Here to see you,” I tell her. “I got information. Information to trade.”
She frowns like she don’t believe. “What you have to trade with me?”
I hesitate. I’d seen this discussion going different, certainly not under gunpoint. Figure now ain’t the time to play coy. “The Black God’s Drums,” I blurt out.
That gets her interest, for sure. Slowly, the captain lowers her pistol, her face flat and unreadable. Refastening the buttons on her corset, she grabs a white shirt from the brass bedpost and begins slipping it on. “Talk,” she orders. “Now.” Her voice is alert, with a tone that says she’s not having any nonsense. So, I talk.
“I like to sleep up on one of Les Grand Murs,” I begin. “There are alcoves there no one checks, where I can see airships come in everyday. I like watching the people—”
“Good place for a thief to mark she victims,” the captain cuts in wryly.
Well yes, I think, but that’s beside the point. And rather rude to point out. “Saw you and your crew get off this morning,” I continue. “Two nights back though, saw something else—a Confederate airship.”
The captain shrugs. “New Orleans open to them jackass like everybody else.”
“It’s who’s waiting for them,” I explain. “A Cajun with white hair. He brings the Confederates down to my alcove. If I hadn’t been tucked into my corner they’d have seen me. But they don’t. And I listen to them talk. Confederates say they’re here to get the Black God’s Drums. Cajun says there’s a Haitian scientist willing to exchange it for something.”
The captain’s brow furrows. “Exchange for what? Money?”
I shake my head. “Not money. They were talking about a jewel.”
The captain goes quiet for a while. Her eyes are set on me but I can tell her mind is elsewhere. When she finally speaks, it’s a question. “You know what that is—the Black God’s Drums?”
I nod. I’d put it together plenty quick as soon as I heard it.
“Shango’s Thunder,” I answer. In my head, Oya dances at hearing her husband’s name.
I used to ask ma maman to tell me the story over and over again, about how Haiti had gotten free. She would talk about the mulatto inventor Duconge, who was raised up in France but returned to the island where his mother was born as a slave and offered his inventions to the black generals of the uprising. When Napoleon’s armada came to take back the island they saw dozens of cannons on the highest hills, all shooting into the air. The Frenchies laughed, thinking the blacks couldn’t aim. They stopped laughing though when the sky turned dark as night, and a storm came that wiped them from the sea. Like the hand of an angry god, ma maman would say.
“In Haiti, the weapon is named for other gods of storms—like Hevioso from Dahomey and Nsasi of Kongo,” the captain relates. “But in Trinidad we name it for Shango, the Yoruba orisha of thunder. Name seem to catch on.”
Oya grumbles with indignation across my thoughts: something about haughty Dahomey and upstart Kongo gods. Wasn’t just them or Shango. She was there too, dancing in the whirlwind, dashing those Frenchie ships to bits and sending thousands of men to lay with Yemoja beneath the sea. Them Frenchies still down there with her mother now, she says, their bones and spirits held close.
“Only a few know its secret code name,” the captain goes on. “The Black God’s Drums.”
“Well, that scientist is going to give your secret weapon to some Rebs,” I say.
Her face goes grim. “That’s no good,” she murmurs. “That’s no good for nobody.”
That last part I already know. Anything that helps those Rebs is bad trouble. I was born after the Armistice of Third Antietam, when the Union and Confederates, all battered up and starving from eight years of war, had called a truce. Might have been good for the white folk, but it doomed those blacks what hadn’t made it to the Union. I’ve seen the tintype photographs from inside the Confederacy. Shadowy pictures of fields and factories filled with laboring dark bodies, their faces almost all covered up in big black gas masks, breathing in that drapeto vapor. It make it so the slaves don’t want to fight no more, don’t want to do much of nothing. Just work. Thinking about their faces, so blank and empty, makes me go cold inside.
“So what you want trade with me for this, lickle gal?” the captain asks.
I frown. Who’s she calling lickle? No longer under the gun, I move to sit in a chair and lean back—trying to look casual and at ease. “I want to go with you when you leave,” I say.
That makes her eyebrows rise. “Go with me? Go where?”
“On your airship, the Midnight Robber. I want to be crew.”
She screws up her face, looking at me as if I’ve jumped out my skin and done a bloody jig around the room—then laughs. The sound makes me bristle. “What I want with a lickle gal on me ship?” She gives a brief, sharp suck of her teeth. “You think I want pickney to mind?”
“I don’t need minding,” I snap, my temper getting the better of me. Oya disagrees, whispering a lullaby. I push it away.
The captain leans forward, pinning me with her gaze. Those large eyes are as dark as Madame Diouf’s. “You ever been on an airship?” she asks gruffly. “Know one end of it from the other?”
That wasn’t fair. “I learn fast!” I counter.
The captain shakes her head, pursing her lips and this time sucking her teeth for a long while—the way old Creole women and Madame Diouf do. “What schupidness is this? Girl like you should be in school, learning your maths and letters, not gallivanting about on some airship! What your mother and father would say?”
“Nothing,” I retort, biting each of my words so they’re forced out. “They’re dead.” This sends her quiet. “Papa died in one of the tempêtes noires.” You took him, Oya, I accuse. The goddess don’t deny it. Just keeps humming. “I never knew him. The yellow fever took ma maman three years back.”
The captain searches my face for truth and decides she’s found it. “I sorry for that,” she says at last. “Still—”
“You knew her,” I break in. I take off my cap and step further into the light. “Ma maman. She used to work here, for Madame Diouf. And the two of you . . .” No need to say the rest.
The captain looks puzzled for a moment. But when she sees my face fully those already large eyes go even bigger.
“Rose,” she whispers, speaking my mother’s name. She stares, as if only now truly seeing me for the first time. “That same little nose and small eyes! Oh gosh, you Rose’s daughter!” Then, more subdued, “I didn’t know she had a child.”
“Ma maman kept me away from her customers.” This makes the captain flinch, but I just shrug. “It was work. She didn’t have no shame in it. And I don’t have no shame for her. I used to see you, though, coming here as crew with other Free Islanders, before you had your own airship. You couldn’t have been much older than me.”
“And how old is you now?” she probes.
“Sixteen,” I declare, trying to sit up a little taller. She frowns dubiously. “Fine, Fifteen,” I amend. She frowns further. “Fourteen,” I mutter. I refuse to admit thirteen.
The captain barks a laugh. “I was well past nineteen before I jumped on any airship! My grandmother would have put licks on my backside if I was even thinking it so young. At your age, all you should be studying on is your schooling and how some boy might like you so and dreaming about when you marry.”
I make a face. Next thing she’ll have me in frilly dresses and ribbons. “You don’t seem to like boys,” I remark.
This actually makes her smile. Her teeth are straight and white as pearls. “Don’t think because you playing sneak-foot behind me that you does know my mind,” she reprimands in a firm tone. “I like boys—men. Sometimes. And I get my schooling!”
“So, you plan to get married?” I say mockingly, folding my arms.
She snorts loudly. I almost smirk at that. Hard not to admire a woman who’s not afraid to let out a good snort. “Not if I can help it. Eh! Stop with all these blasted questions! I a grown woman, and I don’t need answer to you!” I watch as she swings her legs over the edge of the bed. And it’s then I notice one of them isn’t whole. Her right leg is only a thigh ending in smooth brown skin; the rest is made of twisting copper rods that flex like muscle and bone. There’s a steel ball joint where a knee should be and the calf is covered by a leather brown boot. So that explains the limp. She didn’t have that when she visited before. I open my mouth to ask about it then clamp it back shut. None of my business.
She looks up to me, noticing my staring—and suddenly there’s light. Gold like the sun, so much it hurts my eyes. She’s bathed in it, all through her twisted coils of hair and covering her skin. I blink and the light’s gone, leaving twinkling stars in her eyes. In my head Oya thunders, pushing words from my lips I don’t mean to speak aloud.
“Bright Lady!” I blurt out before I can stop myself. The rest blares through my thoughts. Oshun! The Bright Lady! Mistress of Rivers! Oya’s sister-wife! Shango’s favorite! How hadn’t I noticed it before? So that explained Oya’s odd emotions, the jealousy and familiarity. More than one goddess shared this room.
The captain goes stiff as a beam at my words and her eyes narrow. So she knows about the goddess hovering about her, then. I can see it in her face, in the way her lips are pressed together all tight. But she hasn’t accepted it. Well, that’s none of my business either. I turn my head and say no more.
The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.
In the awkward quiet, the captain stands to slip back on her britches, then her remaining boot. “I’m going to find my crew,” she tells me finally. “See if they think you talking true or just trying to sell me one big nancy-story. Wait here. I’ll be back.”
She buttons her Free Isles jacket and walks to the door.
“What’s your name?” I call out quickly.
The captain turns back to me, hesitant before deciding. “Ann-Marie,” she answers. “Ann-Marie St. Augustine.”
“I’m Creeper,” I reply. She pauses at that. Everyone does. But she nods.
I wait until she’s gone. Then I disappear through the window into the night.
Excerpted from The Black God’s Drums, copyright © 2018 by P. Djèlí Clark.
Originally published in July 2018.