“The Tears of Bourbon Street”
By Michael M. Jones
It’s the final night of Mardi Gras—just a few hours until midnight when Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday—and Bourbon Street is infested by ghosts. They move through the crowd with reckless abandon, leaving behind sudden chills and dark uncertainties. They slip into bodies to drink, steal kisses, grope at the living, and draw fresh breaths. As the unleashed spirits pay for their pleasures with a small touch of the grave, the collective mood gradually shifts from wild indulgence to desperation and danger. And deep amidst it all, a man who is not a man weeps inconsolably, masked face buried in his hands.
Some blocks away, Gideon Grace moves upstream against the crowd. At first he’s polite, slipping through gaps with a muttered “Pardon,” but he soon resorts to a more straightforward approach, shoving just like everyone else. He’s a tall, lean man with ebony skin and a shaved head, with youthful features and ancient eyes. Though he wears blue jeans and a garish orange Hawaiian shirt, and pays homage to the celebration with several strings of colorful beads around his neck, there’s no sense of the festive about him—simply a cold determination to handle this unprecedented infestation. Every so often, he grabs a flitting ghost by the metaphorical collar and gives them a good shake. “Go home,” he orders, and they do. “Be at peace,” he commands, and they are. Some obey reluctantly, some even try to argue or bargain; he simply turns a knowing gaze on them, and they fall silent under its weight. Some require a hug, or a kiss on the cheek, or even just a gentle word of acknowledgment, and then they’re gone. As he dismisses them, they vanish through spectral golden doors which flit in and out of existence as needed. To the human celebrants, he’s just another reveler—drunk, high, crazy, or just plain odd. They pay him little attention.
The ghosts of Bourbon Street are confused, plain and simple. Called forth from their resting places, summoned willy-nilly from the great beyond, they respond without knowing why. Without purpose, many of them take advantage of their unexpected liberty. It’s not their fault that the combination of human and spiritual excesses tip an unseen balance, that things swiftly spiral out of control. Already, violence seems inevitable, waiting for that single spark to light the fire.
A silent spirit drifts in Gideon’s wake, somber and alert. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, he’s dressed in stark funereal black and white, a painfully formal contrast to Gideon’s gaudy casualness. He carries in one hand a candle, its light flickering wildly but never blowing out, its wax melting without growing any shorter or dripping past its base. A thin silver chain stretches between the two men, connecting them by the heart. The candlelight surrounds them, its glow carrying beyond the material world; when it touches the other ghosts, they quickly back away. Gideon and his silent companion slowly stride down the middle of Bourbon Street, through the crowds of the living and the dead, a Mardi Gras parade of two.
Finally, they reach one of Bourbon’s most iconic intersections, where it crosses with St. Ann. Here, people are crammed into bars and shops, yelling and drinking, kissing and flirting, stealing every last moment of revelry they can before it all grinds to a halt at midnight. Broken beads and empty cups litter the sidewalk and pavement, along with all manner of other trash and unspeakable debris—possibly even a few folks who partied until they fell and couldn’t get back up again. The ghosts are as thick as flies on rotting meat, attracted by passions grown feral in the heat of the night.
There, in the dead center of the intersection, the man who is not a man kneels, weeping. The crowds give him a wide berth without even realizing it, a slow-moving river parting for a stubborn rock. Gideon breaks through the last ring of people, stumbling just a little as the resistance vanishes, giving him room to move. His companion is a step behind, candlelight still falling over them both. Gideon kneels before the sobbing man, placing one gentle hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, friend. I’m here now.” His voice is soft and soothing, filled with a rich, velvety confidence.
The man looks up to meet Gideon’s eyes. Though the top half of his face is hidden behind an elaborate feathered mask, enough shows of his features to suggest a young man in his mid-20s, wracked by immense sorrow. Tears streak his cheeks. But his eyes are ancient and weary, flickering through shades of purple, green, and glittering gold. “Have we met?” he asks. “You look familiar, but I know so very many people. They come and go and rarely stay for long.”
Gideon shakes his head. “Undoubtedly we have a number of acquaintances in common, but we’ve never met,” he replies. “My name is Gideon Grace. My friend is Christopher Hart. We’re here to help you.
The man gives Gideon and Christopher a quizzical look. “Help me how?” He frowns. “You can see me. You can touch me. That doesn’t happen unless I want it.” He flings out an arm to indicate how the crowds give him ample space. “They don’t even know I’m here, but they leave me alone anyway.”
Gideon smiles sorrowfully. “I reckon I’m a special case. I’d like to talk with you, friend. Find out what has you so upset. Might we find somewhere to sit and have a drink?”
That elicits a reluctant bark of laughter from the man. “This is Bourbon Street at the height of Mardi Gras. While they’re in short stock, there are always places to sit and drink, if you know how to look.”
“Please, lead on.” Though phrased as a suggestion, the words carry unusual weight. Gideon offers the man a hand up. “And please,” he adds, “I know who and what you are, but how are you called?”
The man studies him at some length, frowning ever so slightly before replying. “Call me Louis.” He gives it a French flair. Lou-ee.
Gideon nods. “A pleasure to meet you, Louis.”
Soon, they’re comfortably seated at a small table in the corner of a tiny bar just off the intersection, a hole in the wall that is miraculously quiet and free of revelers. It might have been conjured solely to suit their needs, Gideon thinks. Their order is taken by a tired young woman who has clearly worked a very, very long day; her eyes are weary and smile is forced, but she still makes them feel welcome. Though Christopher settles into a chair, he remains silent and unacknowledged, a literal ghost at the feast.
“So then,” says Gideon. “Tell me your woes, Louis.”
Louis sighs deeply, slumping forward to rest his head in one hand. “You know who I am. You know… what I am.”
“I do,” Gideon agrees. “The spirit of Bourbon Street. Its essence and heart, its soul made manifest.”
“Tens of thousands of people move among me for weeks at a time. They drink and fight, fuck and frolic. They spend time in my stores and strip clubs, they scream for beads and scrabble for trinkets. And it’s so very tiring,” says Louis. “I was a simple street for many years. But things changed. I became popular. Important. Decadent. Somehow I became legendary, which brought awareness. I developed feelings and desires and passions of my own.” He smiles ruefully. “It’s very hard to be this popular. This intense. Short bursts of overwhelming activity, with all manner of drunken debauchery and sexual hijinks, violence and passion… and then all of a sudden it’s over until the next time. The highs and lows of it all. I live from party to party, through the quiet times in between.”
He pauses while the waitress comes and goes, leaving behind a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. Gideon pours for them both, and salutes Louis with his drink before taking a sip. “Go on. Tell me what happened.”
Louis silently swirls his glass, focused on the contents as they create a mini-whirlpool. Then: “I took a lover.”
Gideon’s eyebrows arch, but without surprise. The Mysteries—those beings who walk in the world of the living without actually being human, those myths and legends and stranger things still—often find what they need in the arms of mortals. Worship. Sacrifice. Companionship. “Did they know about you?”
Louis laughs sharply. “No. Well, perhaps he might have suspected something. But ours was an irregular affair. He came in several times a year for Mardi Gras and Southern Decadence. I treated him to the finest food, music, and distractions, and he didn’t ask why we never met outside the French Quarter. We never spoke in the between times. I knew he had other lovers elsewhere, probably someone at home, but we… tactfully avoided the subject. When he was in New Orleans, he was mine, and he made everything easier to bear.” He sips his whiskey. “Jean-Paul was a kind and generous lover, with the body of an angel. And an absolute devil in the sack.”
Gideon coughs briefly. Though he is by no means a prude, this feels like too much information for his tastes. “You say, ‘was’.”
“He died,” says Louis, his voice catching on the words. “A stupid accident as he crossed Canal Street. He was within spitting distance of my territory, but I was powerless to prevent it.” He finishes his drink, slamming down the empty glass. “I couldn’t do a damned thing!”
Gideon reaches out a comforting hand, but the other man draws back like a wounded animal. “I… know how painful that kind of loss can be.”
“Do you really? Somehow I doubt it.” Whether or not he’d planned it, Gideon is the new focus for Louis’ rapidly churning emotions as he goes from grief to anger. He sits in the heart of a street that’s hurting and looking to hurt something back. The noise from outside intensifies. Angry shouting. Gunshots. Screaming.
Gideon quickly holds up his hands. “Hey, take it easy. We’re all friends here. Louis… what did you do?”
“You did something, when Jean-Paul died. You watched his accident, helpless to change it or save him. And what happened next?” Gideon’s voice has iron to it now; he fixes his knowing gaze on Louis’ ever-changing eyes. The cycling colors make him dizzy, but he doesn’t look away, exerting his control and presence on the wayward street.
“I… called him back,” admits Louis, with shame and defiance. “I reached out with all my strength to keep him from moving on. I wrenched open the Gates of Beyond and summoned the restless dead, in the hopes that Jean-Paul would hear me and return.” He glowers at Gideon, daring the man to criticize him.
“He didn’t, did he?”
There’s a long pause, the air in the room growing thick with the pressure of silence.
“Louis, did Jean-Paul return?”
Gideon sighs. “Instead you brought forth thousands of others, in the wrong manner at the wrong time. You shredded the walls between worlds, on a night of great potency. Now we have a very big problem on our hands.”
“Oh?” Louis glares. “Why should I care?” More shouting from outside. Broken glass. The unmistakable sounds of mayhem and chaos.
“Right now, you have several thousand restless spirits playing merry havoc in your territory. Currently, they’re distracted by the presence of the living and the pleasures of the flesh. In less than an hour though, the clock strikes midnight, and the police will clear everyone out. When the party stops, you’ll be left with all those confused ghosts looking for purpose and meaning, shelter and sustenance. New Orleans has always been a haunted city, but within reason. There’s a balance to be maintained.” Gideon smiles humorlessly. “If this isn’t fixed by midnight, you’ll be the most haunted street in the world… and the most dangerous. Things will escalate past repair. And what you’ve done, no man or Mystery can undo without great cost.”
“That might be interesting,” muses Louis, gazing into the distance and imagining Gideon’s nightmare scenario. “I’d never be bored or lonely again.” As he considers the awful possibilities, his smile takes on a manic glee, the colors in his eyes churning madly.
“No!” snaps Gideon, slamming both hands down on the table as he rises to his feet. “You will help me fix this. You’ll help me return these ghosts to where they belong, and restore the status quo.”
“Why should I?” demands Louis, echoing Gideon’s movements, standing as well. “What if I want everyone else to be scared and worried and confused? What if I want the mortals to go away and leave me alone?” The very walls of the building shake as an earthquake sweeps the length of Bourbon Street. Minor, and extremely localized, but outside people scream, panic spreading like wildfire. Then things go ominously silent.
“You know it wouldn’t work that way. We can’t leave things alone. You’d really hate your new tenants after a while. Instead of parties, you’d have scientists, military, and worse.” Gideon sighs. “Look, Louis, I sympathize. You’re hurting and grieving for your lost lover. You’re also at the tail end of an extended bender, still overflowing with drinks and drugs and intense emotions.” He rubs his forehead. “I think you may actually be the world’s first manic–depressive street. Just… help me, and I will help you.”
“I can let you say goodbye to Jean-Paul. I can bring him back briefly and give you closure. If he’s content with his fate, if he’s ready to move on, I can’t make him stay… but I can at least provide you with a moment to make your peace.”
Louis silently considers. Outside, the revelry resumes, loud and desperate and more than a little dangerous. Gideon watches the spirit of Bourbon Street as he weighs his options. If this turns ugly, if it grows violent, he has a few tricks, but nothing that will save him from the wrath of a Mystery in the heart of its influence. He’s done well so far, but success is no longer a sure thing, if ever it was. He glances sideways, where Christopher Hart sits silently, holding his ever-burning candle. Though easily forgotten, he remains a presence, merely waiting for the appropriate moment to act. Christopher’s and Gideon’s eyes meet, sharing a moment of understanding. As Christopher takes Gideon’s hand in a lover’s caress, the silver chain connecting them shines like the moon.
That gets Louis’ attention, as he finally notices Christopher. “You… and a ghost?”
Gideon nods. “A long story. Separated by forces beyond our control, together only when I descend into the underworld, where he acts as my guide. We’re bound by rules older than humanity, and obligations that reach through death. Except right now, everything’s all screwed up. He was summoned forth along with the others, and now he’s neither living nor dead.”
“But you two can be together like this?” Louis eyes their clasped hands jealously.
“It’s not that simple. He’s but a shade of his usual self, almost powerless, a mute spectator in the land of the living. The balance has been upset. This isn’t an improvement.” He puts his other hand on Christopher’s, and the ghost smiles. But anyone looking can tell a spark is missing.
Louis frowns. “If I help you set things right, he’ll go away and you’ll be separated.”
Gideon solemnly nods. “A price we’re unfortunately willing to pay.” Christopher dips his head in mute agreement, a momentary pain flitting through his eyes. He seems sad and tired, just a little forlorn. But the man and the ghost clasp hands as if to stand together at the end of the world.
Louis relaxes; just like that, the tension vanishes, the air no longer oppressively thick. “Fine,” says the spirit of Bourbon Street. “Let’s do this before I change my mind.”
Gideon exhales in relief, and pours them both fresh drinks. They toast to lost loves and doing the right thing, and if neither heart is entirely one hundred percent behind the sentiment, who can blame them?
They leave the safety of the bar, returning to the intersection where Gideon found Louis, where St. Ann meets Bourbon, where the Mardi Gras revelers have reached a fever pitch of alcohol-fueled desperation in their attempt to enjoy things right up until the last second. With just a tiny exertion of Louis’ will, the people part, creating an open space in the middle of the street.
In that circle, the three arrange themselves in a loose triangle: Christopher on Gideon’s right, Louis on his left. Christopher holds out his candle so the light spreads over them, becoming a shimmering golden barrier. Glyphs that were ancient before humanity was born etch themselves around the three, protecting them in a language that cannot be spoken, only felt. Gideon raises his hands, palms outward, fingers splayed, and calls forth his aspect as harrower and ferryman, psychopomp and mediator, as a Guardian of the Gates and a Walker between Worlds. Louis adds his influence over his dominion, that being Bourbon Street itself, and the three—Mystery, mortal, ghost—come together in a clash of power and magic.
United, they see the entirety of Bourbon Street as Louis does, as a living thing, the ghosts glowing like so many flitting fireflies. Filled to overflowing with power, Gabriel opens the doors without effort, coaxing them home, nudging them back where they belong. He leaves them with words of comfort and messages of hope, with reassurances that they’ll be remembered. For the reluctant ones, he simply gives them a hearty shove, slamming the door on their spectral heels. There’s not enough time to soothe every hurt feeling; undoubtedly some will return with anger in their hearts as vengeful spirits one day, but those he’ll deal with as needed in due time.
Just like that, it’s over. Bourbon Street is still packed with revelers, but they’re no longer influenced by lost ghosts or wayward spirits. Their job done, Gideon and Christopher and Louis fall back into their normal selves, drained and weary. Gideon sways, momentarily dizzy as he re-accustoms himself to mortal senses. “That was… something. I could never have accomplished a work of that scale without your permission and influence,” he tells Louis. “Thank you.”
“You made a promise,” Louis says, much-subdued, looking as exhausted as a street-in-human-form can.
“And so I did. I still have enough power for this last task.” Gideon nods to Christopher, and the silent ghost holds up his candle. Its light flickers, and Gideon uses a finger to etch a doorway in the air. It shimmers, falling into blackness. A handsome man in his early 30s, dressed in Mardi Gras colors and wearing a simple domino mask, steps through. As the returned Jean-Paul and Louis fall together into a passionate embrace, Gideon and Christopher step away to give them privacy.
“I really wish you could stay,” Gideon tells Christopher, who regards him with sad, solemn eyes. He takes the ghost’s cold hand. “Someday, we’ll find a way to be together. For eternity. But this, right here, definitely isn’t the way. I miss your voice. I miss your laugh.”
Christopher frees his hand, but only to caress Gideon’s cheek. In the distance, a bell begins to toll, and Christopher’s smile turns rueful.
Midnight. Fat Tuesday becomes Ash Wednesday. Their time is up.
Jean-Paul pulls away from Louis with quiet apologies and one last kiss. Christopher meet Gideon’s gaze, and exhales with silent regret. The bell continues to toll. Christopher leans in, ghostly lips brushing Gideon’s like a promise, and then he turns. He takes Jean-Paul’s hand; together, the two ghosts walk through the empty door, vanishing into the eternal darkness of whatever lies beyond. As the final peal of midnight fades away, Gideon stands with Louis.
“He will be at peace,” Louis says sadly. “He embraced his fate with far more dignity than I did.” He shakes his head. “I believe I shall make my own exit. It will be a long time before I walk in flesh again. Your world—it is painful sometimes. But you shall always have a friend here, should you need.” He extends a hand. “Goodbye and thank you, Gideon Grace.”
Gideon clasps hands with Louis. “Rest easy,” he said. Just like that, his hand is empty. He’s alone… alone in a sea of thousands, just as the mounted police begin the task of breaking up the party and sending everyone home. “Why do I feel like I’ve been stuck with the bill?” he asks himself, with a chuckle of dark amusement. With no answer forthcoming, he goes with the flow, swept along with the crowd and on into the night. Somewhere, a man who is not a man weeps no more.
“The Tears of Bourbon Street”
Constellary Tales Issue No. 1, November 2018
Michael M. Jones lives in southwest Virginia with too many books, just enough cats, and a wife who introduced him to the joys of Bourbon Street. His stories have appeared in anthologies such as E is for Evil, Dark Luminous Wings, and Robot Dinosaurs! For more, visit him at www.michaelmjones.com.