A New Year’s story, much happier than my usual fare.
She had moved to Louisiana in the winter. It wasn’t cold, not compared to what she was used to, but she still longed to curl up with someone warm at night.
Her apartment was a tiny thing in Belle Chasse, with a wrought-iron spiral staircase that led up to her heavy wooden door. The building itself was all brick, surrounded by dense woods and further in, sometimes swampy waters.
She often sat on the levee near her apartment and watched the lazy Mississippi River flow past. Her therapist told her that it was good for her health to live somewhere calmer. Away from New York, the small Plaquemines Parish town seemed to move like molasses. It WAS pretty relaxing, even she had to admit.
In the summer, she picked wildflowers in large fields with KEEP OUT signs. The variety of colors and shapes of the flowers and the multitude of them amazed her. She came upon a warty toad once and screamed from the surprise of it. Locals warned her that snakes hid in the high grasses, and gators in the swampy areas. She found a tire swing in the woods that precariously swung out over still swamp water. She didn’t want to be gator bait, so she didn’t risk it. She wasn’t sure it could hold her ample weight, anyway.
The neighbors had cookouts and crawfish boils in the summer. She attended a few, learning how to suck the crawdaddy heads and pluck the meat out of their tails. The spicy boil mix burned her throat the first few times but she got used to it pretty quickly. The neighbors commented on how little she ate for such a big girl, and she finally felt comfortable enough to eat to her fill around them. It seemed everyone enjoyed it when people ate here, not like New York or L.A. or Milan… She had really hated Milan. She was finally comfortable in her own body again.
It was at one of these communal dinners that she met her. She was all alone, sitting on the fringes of the vast lawns. She was immediately smitten by her kohl-lined eyes, her sleek shape, her adorably long nose. She offered a crawfish tail – not a standard greeting, but it seemed to be appreciated.
“Hey there… My name is Evette.”
“Evette,” one of the neighbors piped up, “This is Lila. She’s a bit of a recluse, this one!” The neighbor guffawed and walked away, scooping up a hunk of spicy corn into their hungry mouth. Evette rolled her eyes and smiled at Lila.
Before long, Evette and Lila were living together. They went on roadtrips together to the French Quarter, on day trips to pick more wildflowers for their small apartment, on short trips around the neighborhood. The neighbors quickly came to know them by sight. They were happy.
And before long, Evette had someone warm to cuddle in bed. It was a perfect match.
There was a hard knock at the door one morning. A familiar neighbor stood outside, looking shaken. They told Evette to prepare herself. Evette fled down the spiral staircase in her nightdress, only to find Lila’s cold body at the bottom. She held Lila tight and sobbed into her corpse.
Later, the neighbors wondered what had happened to the body, but didn’t wish to pry. That wasn’t the way it was done out here. Evette kept quiet and didn’t cause a fuss, so that was enough.
The piles of cornbread and offerings of tupperware full of gumbo piled up outside her door – food was good for healing, they said. A note was slipped under her door late one night, while she was sitting alone listening to her Nina Simone records. The note had no sender, just vague instructions, scrawled hastily on yellowed paper.
Evette left late one night. So late, it could well be morning. She had wrapped Lila’s body in their favorite blanket and dragged it into the car. She took the ferry across the river to New Orleans. From there, it was a short drive once she knew what she was looking for.
The note had said to go to a home on Terpsichore Street. The building was old, three stories, bars on the bottom windows, with many odd stars on it. She didn’t know what to expect. She left Lila’s body in the car, with a few more blankets piled up on it. Lila felt so cold and distant now…
She repeated the knock the note had said to give. One, two, two, one – like the points on the odd stars. A large man opened the door and let her in.
“Magic isn’t found in the shops that sell epherma and oddities and throw-away dolls. Magic is found in the backs of restaurants and homes, with those that know how to hide it. Otherwise everybody would know about it.” That’s what the note said, so Evette didn’t think twice about stepping into this strange home.
The first floor wasn’t what she expected – it looked like a proper restaurant, with people eating and chatting gaily. The smell was transcendent – spicy, sweet, fresh baked breads and long-sitting stews. No one looked up at her as she followed the man who had let her in.
He took her into the kitchen, where a small woman about her age looked frazzled. The woman quickly handed Evette a colander of snap-beans, pointing at a pot of boiling water.
“Pop the ends off those beans and put ‘em in there! C’mon honey, we’ve got a huge dinner rush today!”
Evette, now equally frazzled, did as she was told, making quick work of the beans.
“Um, I– Hi, my name’s Evette and I’m actually here about–”
“You’re Evette, yeah? I’m Anais. Nice to meet’chya, honey! Now could you lower the heat on that pot of rice? Don’t take the lid off, it’ll turn to mush!”
Evette did as she was told, playing along for over two hours – though time seemed to pass more quickly with Anais. The two danced around each other like an old choreographed movie, tossing spices here, slicing fruit there, dishing up plates and deep bowls at last.
Exhausted, Evette collapsed into a nearby chair. Anais wiped her hands off on her apron, smiling at her.
“Good job, sous chef! The agency sent over a hard worker this time.”
“Um, actually… What I was trying to say before. My name is Evette and I’m.. I’m not a sous chef. I came here because someone left an anonymous note on my door. They said someone here could.. could help me with a… a…”
Anais leaned forward, looking perplexed.
“You mean you didn’t complain while I was running you ragged? Ha, you’re a pushover for such a big girl! What do you need help with, honey?”
“I…” Tears started dripping down into Evette’s open palms as she stared down at her tired hands.
“I… ..I just… She’s dead and… I can’t… I can’t be without her… I NEED her..”
Anais stood up, looking suddenly grim.
Evette walked Anais out to her car. Anais leaned in close, peeking under the blankets. She stood up again, taking Evette by the shoulders.
“Honey, she’s cold and dead. Not much can be done.”
Evette crumpled onto the curb, sobbing quietly. She didn’t think she had any tears left in her, but they came out like waterfalls down her face.
Anais looked uncomfortable. She helped Evette back inside and handed her a heaping plate of everything they had cooked that day. Evette ate between sniffles, the first hot food she had eaten in days.
“Now…” Anais purred, placing a hand on Evette’s knee. “Tell me about your cold friend.”
“She’s… She’s more than a friend. She’s my whole world. I moved out here because my therapist said I needed something calmer, and Lila was just… there. She was always there for me.”
“You understand, honey, that if I brought her back… she may not be the same? It’s rare that somethin’ pure enough exists that it won’t be spoiled by death. And after something pure is cold, well… It’s even rarer.”
“But… but you CAN bring her back?”
“Normally I’d charge a steep price.”
“I have money! Please!”
“Not cash, honey… But look, why don’t you stay for the next few days and be my sous chef? Obviously the agency is shit and you’re a good worker, I’d hate to lose you.”
“And you’ll bring back Lila?”
“Of course, honey. It’ll take a few days, anyway. You can sleep upstairs in a spare room while I take care of your girl. Deal?”
Evette wiped away her tears and nodded, a smile spreading across her face.
“Thank you, thank you so much, Anais. I promise you won’t regret this.”
Anais had a man carry Lila’s body to her bedroom. There were odd smells that occasionally drifted out from under her door, but otherwise, the house was normal – drab, even. Evette opened up her window at night and let the cool breeze come in. After a long day as a sous chef in a tiny, hot house kitchen, even the Summer breeze felt good against her skin.
She and Anais did their dance for five days. Evette was better at the strong work – slicing up ribs, lifting crates of vegetables, putting giant pots of water on the stove, cracking open cantaloupe with machetes. Anais seasoned everything to perfection – tossing spices, grinding garlic and adding pinches of black pepper here and there. She delicately sliced apart persimmons, strawberries and mango to garnish the shaved ice.
At night, they all talked and ate before going up to their respective rooms. A few of the waiters and the doormen joined them, eating from throwaway paper plates so no one had dishes. Eventually, it was always just Anais and Evette left, sitting on the back porch, looking up at the stars or dense storm clouds.
Evette told Anais all about her therapy, what kind of things she’d been through, how rough New York was on her. Anais longed to travel, but had never been farther than Slidell. They both felt safe with each other, for different reasons.
On the fifth night, Anais put her head on Evette’s ample shoulder and fell asleep. Evette carried Anais upstairs and creaked open the little white door that belonged to her. Fairy lights hung on her iron bed, and there was a familiar blanket in the corner, with a familiar shape inside of it.
Evette paused, then set Anais down on the bed gently. As Evette went to leave again, Anais grabbed her thick arm, pulling her down onto the bed with a strength Evette didn’t know the tiny woman possessed. Anais kissed her softly, then fell asleep in her arms. Evette smiled as she drifted off, too.
The next day was much like the same, except their dance was different. Timid touches, lingering looks and subtle strokes figured into their choreography around the tiny kitchen. Once, Evette even took the lead and scooped up Anais in her arms, spinning her around with a kiss until she released her again near the sink. The food all had rave reviews that day, and customers said it was the best Bumblebee Stew they’d ever tasted out of the Star House on Terpsichore.
They sat on the back porch at night, tasting the food they had made with love, that even the doorman said had extra flavor. They talked and ate like usual, except Evette and Anais touched pinkies side-by-side, and shared glances thicker than pecan pie. Finally, it was just the two of them again.
That’s when they heard it. A scrabbling, a howling from upstairs. Anais started up like a dart, but Evette was quicker with her long legs, taking the stairs two at a time. Evette threw open the door to Anais’ room, staring at the figure howling under the blanket she knew so well.
Anais jumped in front of her.
“Evette, no! I need to see if she’s okay! I need to check her! Remember, she was cold, she could be–”
Evette brushed past Anais easily, her shaky hand grabbing the blanket to pull it off of Lila. Lila stood there, staring, for what seemed like an eternity. Suddenly,
Lila leapt for Evette, mouth open.
Evette outstretched her arms, catching Lila with a smile.
Lila licked her face all over, whining happily and wagging her tail.
Anais put a hand to her chest, falling back against the doorframe in relief.
“I guess your girl was pretty pure… Dogs usually are better than people, honey, that’s a certainty.”
Evette fell onto the floor as Lila licked her all over. Lila’s big German Shepherd nose and kohl-lined eyes and slim figure were all animated once more, full of life like the day they’d met.
Lila curled up in bed with Anais and Evette that night, and every night after, keeping them warm and safe.
She was happy to be back and part of a family. Evette and Anais were happy to have found each other through Lila.
And the Bumblebee Stew was forever sweeter, as the three of them danced through the tiny hot kitchen, and travelled the world, and made each other feel safe in so many ways…