It was a week after the 17th St. Canal levee had breached -- and a month since my mother died -- and I was still in the house.
Lakeview had flooded; there were no other people left on the block. I was living on the second floor. Of course the electricity was off but strangely enough the gas was still flowing and the cook stove in the kitchen still worked.
As bizarre as it was, that morning I went downstairs--where there was three feet of standing water--and made breakfast. I had found an old metal percolator in the attic, and I used cast iron skillets. There was bread in the pantry, and bacon and eggs that I kept cold inside the waterlogged refrigerator.
I know it sounds strange that I would stand there in three feet of stagnant water, cooking -- but the whole scene of devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina was surreal.
That morning as I cooked for myself I heard a gentle splashing in the street and looked out to see a young lady in a flowing dress had stopped in front of the house. I could see she was sniffing, and I thought, “She must be hungry.”
She also looked very much lost. I went to the door, and called out “Do need some food?” She looked at me strangely and didn’t say anything, but came closer.
“Do you need something to eat?”
As she came up to the gate I could see her dress was clinging to her body as if she’d been completely immersed. Her skin was pale like she hadn’t seen much sunlight. Her hair was extraordinarily black, and her eyes a most bright and unusual shade of blue. I couldn’t recall ever having seen that shade before.
I motioned for her to come in. “You don’t need to be wandering the streets alone, young lady,” I said. “Come here, I have some food.”
She still didn’t speak but came to the house. She looked around as she stood inside the door, amazed at the sight. There was water three feet high throughout the first floor, with all the furniture still sitting there. I thought myself it looked nothing so much as like a boat that was half sunk.
I went back to the stove where I had some toast on an iron skillet. I had to take the percolator off the stove before boiled over. When I turned my attention back to her, I realized she was very, very beautiful.
Under normal circumstances I would think it improper for an old bachelor like me just to invite the young lady inside, but these weren’t normal circumstances. She sniffed and looked at the stove like she was very hungry. She also seemed to watch the gas flame like it was a living creature.
I turned back to the stove. “I still have a few eggs, ,” I said. “I’ve been saving them. Would you like some scrambled eggs?”
She looked at me inquisitively but still didn’t speak and it occurred to me she might not speak English.
“Parlez vous Francais? Habla Espanol?” I asked. “Kenst reden Yiddish?”
Still nothing. “Or she just might be a mute,” I thought.
I forgot about the eggs; the bacon had finished cooking. I put some butter on toast and two slices of bacon on the butter. I handed it to her. She did look a little thin.
“Here you go young lady,” I said.
She gingerly picked the bacon up and ate each slice, and then licked the butter off the bread before breaking the toast into pieces and eating it.
“Definitely a foreigner,” I thought.
I drank my coffee and looked at her. “Do you have some place to stay?”
No reaction. Well, I knew the National Guard had a high-wheeled vehicle that drove down the street every so often to check on the few people, such as myself, who were still in their homes in the neighborhood. The next time it came down the street, I would flag it down and make sure they took her along.
She seemed attentive enough, although somewhat shy, and I hadn’t had anyone to talk to in over a week. “I live in Shreveport,” I said. “I’ve lived there 30 years. I grew up in this house, and my mother still lived here, until she died last month. My father died a long time ago. After mom’s funeral, I came here to organize things and prepare for selling the house.”
I looked at her. “And then Katrina came to visit.”
She seemed to be listening. “I didn’t want to leave the house, not that there is anything terribly valuable, but there are a lot of things here that are very personal. The second story is still warm and dry. I’ve been up there since the 17th St. Canal wall opened up.”
“I have a battery-powered radio, and I’ve been staying in a bedroom upstairs,” I continued. “Things are in chaos in the city. If you have no place to go, you can stay here until the next National Guard patrol come by.”
As I said that I looked at the staircase and her gaze followed mine.
“Why the hell are we standing here in the water? I’m going back upstairs. You can come and dry out.”
I finished my coffee and toast and climbed up the stairs. At this point I’d really didn’t know if the strange pretty girl would accept my invitation, but I didn’t care.
I was almost to the top when I heard the creaking that indicated she was following me. “Watch your step,” I said. “It’s slippery.” I looked back and down and saw her legs and feet were pink like a newborn baby’s.
Although the first floor looked like a derelict ship, the second-floor looked as normal as ever. I went into the guest bedroom -- which many years before had been my bedroom -- and pulled a rocking chair by the front window so I could keep a watch out for the National Guard.
She came into the room and looked all around in wonder. “She’s either a foreigner or really poor,” I thought. “Or both. This isn’t that special a place.”
I gestured for her sit down on the bed. She did, then she lay down, and fell fast asleep.
“Poor thing,” I thought. “God knows what she’s been through. Perhaps her family is dead.” I took a quilt off the rack and covered her with it.
The National Guard truck came down the street but I didn’t have the heart to wake the young lady. I felt a certain sense of protectiveness, and I sat by the window the rest of the day.
I didn’t realize I had fallen asleep, but then I felt a gentle tugging at my sleeve. The girl was there, trying to get my attention like a friendly dog. I looked over to an old mechanical alarm clock on the dresser, and could see it was 6 p.m.
She was kneeling on the floor. I leaned on the arm of the rocking chair. “Listen young lady,” I said. “I’m happy to give you shelter, but it’s about time you explained yourself a little bit. Hurricane or no hurricane, things might seem improper -- especially since I’m single and you are so young.”
I pointed a finger at my chest. “My name is Larry,” I said. “What is your name?” I asked, pointing the finger at her.
Her eyes widened. She finally spoke. “Azura,” she said.
“Okay,” I said. “Now, we’re getting someplace.”
I made an expansive circle in the air with my finger and hand. “This is New Orleans,” I said. Then I pointed at her. “Are you from New Orleans?”
She shook her head.
I made a very wide circle in the air. “So where are you from?” I asked.
She looked at me as if thinking real hard, and said something that sounded like “Azitilan”.
There was a large reproduction of an old lithograph map of The Confederacy on the wall as a decoration. I went over to it and rubbed my hand flat across.
“Are you from any place around here?” I asked.
She stood up and came over to me. She looked at me, and looked at the map.
She pointed -- right at the center of the Gulf of Mexico.
I was so startled my knees buckled. I looked at her, and realized what I had refused to recognize before.
She looked at me and for the first time she smiled. She knew that I knew.
I couldn’t believe it. She kneeled beside me and then held herself up against me. She started to nibble on my neck and we both fell down on the floor.
In a moment, we were making love, and soon everything turned white and I fainted dead away.
I woke up as the sun streamed through the window the next morning. I was sore, and as I got on my knees and then rose unsteadily, I thought to myself, “That couldn’t have been real.”
She was nowhere to be found. “Wow, that was the strangest dream.”
I dressed, and went down to the kitchen, and I found the two plates still on the counter.
I looked out the kitchen window over the vast expanse of water, and thought “This water goes unbroken out towards the Gulf. I wonder whether, in this calamity that struck us, there are also victims we don’t know about -- victims who were driven inland from beneath the sea.”
I heard a splashing and rumbling from the street, and saw the National Guard truck stop in front of my house. A guardsman shouted.
“You have to evacuate now,” he hollered. “It’s mandatory.”
I went to the door. “What about looters?”
“Guardsmen are coming in from all states, he said. “Patrols have increased. Everything will be safe.”
“Give me a few minutes, and I’ll get my clothes,” I said.
As I ran upstairs, I looked into the master bedroom, where I had organized some of my parents’ stuff. I realized I probably stayed because of the sense of loss and the need for closure. I was an only child.
I supposed it was time to move on.
“This stuff can wait,” I said to no one. I threw what I needed into a knapsack, closed all the windows and locked the front door on my way out.
I waded out to the truck, and hopped in the back. As we drove away, I looked across the water and wondered about Azura.
It’s been almost 10 years now, and I pretty much came to think of the whole episode as some kind of bizarre dream.
The renovation of the family home took so much time and expense that I left my apartment in Shreveport and moved back in permanently. I was fortunate to find a good job in New Orleans, which greatly facilitated the move.
As part of the renovation I completely overhauled the first floor. Obviously the kitchen had to be gutted and refurbished. It’s very nice now. So this morning I’m cooking breakfast alone as usual -- in a nice dry kitchen, not standing in three feet of water -- when I see someone who looks vaguely familiar walking down the sidewalk.
I lean towards the window and see is just a little girl -- but something had momentarily fooled my eye. Her hair was lustrous and black, and she carried a gym bag. She looked at the house, stopped at the gate and opened it.
I went to the door and opened it. She just stood there and made no effort to ring the doorbell.
“Hello young lady,” I said through the glass. “Can I help you?”
Her eyes were a familiar shade of cerulean blue, with flecks of greenish-gray that reminded me of sea foam.
“Are you Larry? she asked.
“Yes, I am,” I said. “Who are you?”
“I am Schiara,” she said. “Daughter of Azura. I have come to live with you.”
I open the door quickly and stared hard at her. She was very young but looked me in the eye. “My mother said I must come to stay with you, for I am more of your people that I am of hers,” she said.
I was stunned. “I am an old bachelor,” I said. “I have no family and I have no children.”
“Yes, you do,” she said. She gave me a look and I got out of the way. She stepped inside and she dropped the gym bag on the floor.
I looked at her hard and recognized a lot.
“Your mother was much shyer and a lot less talkative than you,” I said in amazement.
“That’s because she said I am like you,” she said. She sniffed and looked towards the kitchen.
“What’s for breakfast?”
I raised my arms in a gesture of resignation. “Bacon and eggs and toast, with coffee.” I said.
“Great,” she said as she sat at the table. “It’s been a long trip, and I’m hungry.”
I went over to the coffeemaker, looked back at her, and I just couldn’t keep from laughing at her audacity.
She smiled and laughed too.