August 28, 2005
If it weren’t for the voodoo curse, she’d have made a terrific mother. It was all Cecile Lafayette Boudreaux ever wanted. She rubbed her hand over the bulge around her middle. We’ll get through this, Junior, not to worry. Who said a Cajun wasn’t supposed to scare easily? Must have been a Yankee. She watched the weatherman on the TV draw spaghetti lines that snaked through the Gulf of Mexico, all heading straight toward the mouth of the Mississippi. They named her Katrina. The die-hards planned hurricane parties. Fire up the outdoor cooker; them mud bugs were waiting for cayenne pepper, hot sauce and 'taters. Laissez les bons temps rouler (Let the good times roll.) Mayor Ray Nagin interrupted the weatherman. He issued a mandatory evacuation. Governor Blanco appeared on the screen next and told anyone refusing to leave to write their names and social security number on their arms in permanent marker so they could identify the bodies. Seriously? Cecile hunted around the house for a marker.
Don’t be ridiculous. She flipped off the television. Those news people always blew things out of proportion. This wasn’t the first hurricane in her thirty years, and it wouldn't be the last. No matter the warnings, she couldn't leave without Armand. He had responsibilities as drilling manager for Murphy Oil Refinery, but he’d be home soon.
She opened the door and stared at ominous dark clouds and things that had no business being airborne. Thousands of mosquito hawks flew in a frenzy, forming a gossamer purple and green funnel. It's coming . . . please let it pass over. Grey sky turned black pelted rain in straight arrows, and then suddenly whipped sideways, almost knocking her over, sending loose shingles and small garden tools rolling across yards and down the center of streets. She staggered back inside and locked the door.
The phone rang and startled her. Jumpy, her nerves were as raw as prime rib.
“Come home, CeCe. There's still time,” her father pleaded. Home was Butte La Rose, one hundred and nineteen miles northwest, along the Atchafalaya River, safely out of the eye of the storm.
“I'm fine Daddy, really.” She forced her voice to sound steady. “Armi will be here soon.” She could hear her grandmother, Mamère Le Bieu, the local voodoo queen, chanting in the background. “What's Mamère doing?”
Her father snorted. “She’s in her element. She's beckoning spirits to keep you safe. You should have seen her chase that gecko for her potion. It was hysterical.”
Cecile's laugh came out jagged and raw. She pictured the squat fire-plug frame scurrying after the reptile, a rainbow of caftan billowing around her. She stroked the Gris-Gris amulet around her neck that Mamère made to protect her. “Tell her I appreciate her voodoo and will sleep safer knowing the spirit of Evangeline is protecting me. I’ll call later, Daddy, when it’s over.” If only her mother was still alive to sooth her frayed nerves. It was times like this she missed her the most.
She looked around the sturdy frame house. It was a fortress. Armand boarded the house so not a sliver of daylight peeked through the plywood sheets. They were prepared. The bathtub was filled with water, they had fresh batteries and flashlights, the cupboard had enough canned goods to last three days.
By 11:00 a.m., winds reached 175 miles per hour. The sound of a train barreling down allusive tracks rattled the rafters. The power went out. Oh God! It could have been midnight instead of mid-morning thanks to Armand’s diligence. She felt her way through the eerie darkness for the edge of the kitchen table and slid into a chair. Okay. She was fine. It wouldn’t do any good to panic. She stooped to pick up a flashlight that rolled to the floor. “Ah. Whoa there Junior.” The baby kicked hard against her rib cage. She rubbed her swollen belly, soothing her son that wasn’t due for another ten weeks. She cranked on the battery-operated emergency weather radio. It warned those still in New Orleans to stay inside. Interstate 10, Highway 39 and Route 61 were deadlocked. Automobiles and gas stations were running out of gas. She pointed the flashlight at the battery-operated wall clock. Noon. Would Armand make it home safe? The packed suitcases by the front door mocked her. They couldn't leave now if they wanted to.
Through the boarded windows, she heard large objects slam against the house. Boom! Crash! Thud! Each assault made her heart jump to her throat. Was the house going to hold?
She padded barefoot down the hall and felt cold water between her toes. She aimed the flashlight at the floor. “Shit.” A small stream weaved through grout lines in the tile foyer toward the thick padding under the front room carpet. Water pooled on concave window sills and seeped down the wall.
Cecile dialed Armi's cell. Pick up, pick up, please. The stilted voice of the machine kicked on, and she groaned as a second pain doubled her over. “Babe, please come home. Things are getting kind of scary here. Water's coming in under the doors and windows. There's no power. And your son's giving me a fit. He doesn’t like the storm either.” Beep. The line went dead. Damn.
She rolled bath towels and shoved them under crevices. The flashlights standing upright on the table cast eerie round circles on the ceiling.
Okay Cecile, stay calm. He'll be here soon. She wrapped her arms around herself, a chill running down her spine. Relax. There was nothing else to do. Propping her legs up on the sofa, she tried to concentrate on her Lamaze breathing techniques. Deep cleansing breaths. In and out, in and out. The howling of the wind faded into humming. A familiar cloud settled in around her as she started to nod off, No, no, please go away.
Armand listened to the voice mail from his wife. He had to get home to Cecile. The CEO and operations managers had been in a dead-end debate on what to do with the oil tanks for three hours. It was time for him to take control of the situation. “Fill the empty tanks with water so they’ll sink. And tie down the ones with the crude oil. Then everyone get the hell out of here. I’m leaving.”
Armand patted the dashboard of the high SUV, glad it maneuvered through the rising water that had nowhere to go in below-sea-level New Orleans. Most of the streets were already flooded. The levees would hold back the overflow of Lake Ponchatrain and the MRGO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, as long as water didn't breach their tops.
Wind and rain beat against the windshield and rocked the heavy vehicle, sometimes tipping it onto two wheels. By the time he reached their home on Ventura Drive in Chalmette, the garage had four inches of water. The front lawn was strewn with debris.
He pushed hard on the door blocked with rolled towels. “CeCe, where are you?”
“In here,” Cecile said.
Armand sloshed through the dark kitchen to the front room. Two inches of water covered the thick beige carpet. “CeCe, look!”
She pulled herself into a sitting position, swung her legs onto the floor, and then jerked her bare feet out of the cold water.
“Are you all right? And Junior?” Armand stroked her stomach.
She managed a smile. “Better . . . now that you're home. He's not liking this storm, That’s for sure. The curse, Armi . . . I saw the cloud.”
“Nonsense, there’s no curse, and no cloud. It’s all in your imagination.” He looked around the room, in take-charge mode. “We better stack as much as we can.” Armand started piling things; dining chairs atop the table, ottoman and magazine racks on the kitchen counter.
Cecile followed behind him, lifting smaller items out of harm’s way.
He kissed her cheek and ran his palm over her silky blonde hair. It was damp with perspiration. “We already know what to expect. The storm will pass, it'll get quiet when we're in the eye, then we'll get hit again as it comes around the other side.” He rubbed her back. “We’ll be okay. Want to curl up on the bed until it's over . . . unless ?” He gave his best Groucho Mark’s impersonation. “You want to do something else to take your mind off the storm.”
“Oh, no you don't.” She laughed nervously. “Snuggle only, Mr. Boudreaux. Junior is so active you're liable to give him a black eye.”
Their nap was short lived. The water kept rising. The water reached knee-high, almost even with the mattress. “CeCe,” Armand jumped up. “We've got to go higher.”
“Where?” She asked, staring at the rising water. “It's not like we have a second story? Should we leave?”
Armand forced open the door and peeked through the crack as water gushed in. The entire street was a river and the storm had not let up. “Up,” he said. “Into the attic. You go, and I'll gather flashlights and batteries.”
“Omigod! Don't forget bottled water.” said Cecile. “And whatever food you can. And pillows and blankets from the bed.”
Armand steadied the ladder as she crawled through the trap door of the attic, her wide girth squeezing through the hole. This was not good, not good at all. He pushed water bottles, the battery-operated radio and everything he could think of through the hole before he pulled himself to safety.
He waited for his eyes to adjust to the filtered light in the small attic. Damn, it must have been a hundred degrees in there. The air was stifling. He spread the blankets and pillows on the floor, trying to make Cecile comfortable, amidst boxes of Christmas decorations and old college memorabilia.
“Armi, my back is killing me,” she moaned.
“You've done too much. And it's hotter than Hades in here. Try to be still. Practice your breathing.” He pushed boxes farther into the eaves, giving at least the illusion of more space. He patted an old electric fan with large black blades in a round metal cage. “Why didn’t I buy that generator? I’ve looked at them dozen times in the hardware store?”
“It’s okay. The storm won’t last long,” said Cecile. Her wide eyes belied her words. She didn’t sound convincing. She curled into a fetal position. “Armi, I think I'm going into labor.”
A loud crash pummeled the roof. Armand threw his body over hers to protect her from whatever might come through. When the roof held he lifted himself off of her and stroked her hair. “No, no. it's too early. It's the stress causing Braxton Hicks contractions. They'll stop, you’ll see.”
Her water broke and a wet spot spread across the blanket. She let out a primal scream and clutched at Armand’s shirt. “Omigod! I can't have the baby here”
Armand wiped the sweat from his eyes. Adrenalin coursed through his body. “I'll... I’ll g-g-g-get help,” That damn stutter he had as child raised its ugly head. He punched numbers into his cell phone. No service. Someone had to rescue them. He needed to get to the roof. There had to be something in those old boxes. There was a stack of boxes in the corner. In the back of his mind, a vague memory of packing them when he left college. He tore into them and found a small ball-peen hammer among his college pendant and old textbooks. He pounded on a metal air vent. Sweat dripped from his forehead and stung his eyes. The aluminum vent gave way as the wind grabbed and tossed it away. He reached his arm through but the twelve-inch hole but it was too small to fit his head and shoulders. Rain poured through the opening and he choked as he pressed his face as close as possible to the vent.
“He... he.... Help! Somebody,” he sputtered. “Can you hear me? Help! We...we... We're in here.”
Only the screaming sound of Katrina answered back.
“Armi, Armi,” Cecile shrieked. “Can you see it? The cloud. Why is this happening to us again?”
He shook his head, spraying water over her, not answering. He didn’t have time for this nonsense. He gave up the futile call for help and looked around for something to plug the hole. Not finding anything, he tore off his shirt, exposing his dark furry chest. He loved it when she ran her fingers through those hairs. But not now. What could he do for her?
He rolled the shirt into a ball and stuffed it into the opening. Too small, it dropped onto the plywood floor. Maybe it wasn’t Braxton Hicks. Shit. He couldn’t deliver a baby. Too early, way too early. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with his arm. “I'm here for you Baby. Tell me what I can do.”
Cecile sobbed. “I don't know. He's coming. I can't stop him.”
He timed the pains, continuing every three minutes for the next eight hours, forcing small sips of water down Cecile. She was barely conscious from exhaustion and pain. Throughout the night, Armand sat beside Cecile, holding her hand and offering the little bit of support he could muster. The suffocating lack of air, screaming wind and constant bombardment of flying projectiles hitting the roof lasted through the night. Amid the racket of exploding transformers and a strange creaking sound that strained against the storm, Armand prayed, for the first time since catechism classes as child.
Please God, spare this child.
Cecile screamed as the baby crowned. Where did she get the strength? In an instant, he knelt between her legs as she pushed their child into the world. It was 10:56 a.m., Monday, August 29, 2005. They were in the eye of the storm.
The sudden silence was almost as foreboding as the pounding storm. He watched Cecile close her eyes and her body relax. Sleep. Please sleep. Give him these few minutes to deal with this on his own.
His respite didn’t last long. She opened her eyes and asked for their son. Why wasn’t he crying?
“Don't CeCe.” He shook his head. “You don't want to see.”
“Please,” she whispered. “Let me hold him.”
He couldn’t stop the rivers pouring from his eyes. He had to stay strong for her, even though, inside, his heart was ripping in two. It’s over. All those dreams. —of tossing a ball with his son, teaching him to fish, sharing “guy” stuff. Over. With a heavy heart, he handed their son to her.
“No, no, no.” Cecile clutched their stillborn child to her chest. “Did you see it? Did you see the cloud? The curse took our baby again. It’s my fault. I’m so sorry.”
“No CeCe. There is no curse. It’s not your fault.”
They huddled together on the thin blanket, the child swaddled between them in a beach towel as the back side of the storm hit. If only he had gotten them out of the storm sooner. If there was blame to go around, it was all his. Would the house hold against this second onslaught? This could be the end. It had been his job to protect them. He had failed.
By morning, the house was still standing and the storm had passed, but the danger had not. With bare hands and the small hammer, Armand ripped at roof shingles and studs until he had a large enough opening to fit his entire body.
For as far as he could see, there was nothing but rooftops and devastation. Along with trees and street signs, bodies of small animals floated by along with bits and pieces of people's lives; a hand-carved wooden cane, a curly haired doll, a soccer ball.
Armand shouted until his voice gave out. Silence. Where was everybody? Where were the rescue boats, the helicopters? He flipped on the emergency radio. Newscasters used the words total devastation. Levees had given way and over ninety percent of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish were under ten to twenty feet of snake infested water. Oh God! How long would it take for the rescue boats to reach Chalmette? They were miles outside of New Orleans. He made a flag out of his shirt, tied by its arms to the end of a broom handle and affixed it to the chimney with bungee cords found in college boxes. Cecile moved in and out of consciousness, calling for Armand and her Mama and mumbling about the curse.
Armand sat on the roof in one-hundred-degree heat, his back blistered by the sun, waiting for someone to find them. Once, a helicopter flew over. He stood, waving his hands and shouting, “Come back. Come back.” as it flew off into the distance.
Cockroaches came next, flying in swarms, swooping in through every hole and crevice, landing on any surface, crawling on their arms, faces, and into their hair. Nothing can kill those bastards. He watched Cecile fight to keep them off the bundle she hugged close to her chest.
By Wednesday, all of the food was gone. Armand forced the last swallow of water down Cecile's throat. He gagged on the overpowering stench emitting from the rigid bundle Cecile rocked in her arms.
Finally, two men appeared in a small flat-bottomed fishing trawler. On the roof, Armand waved them toward him. “Help, please. My wife is inside.”
The men threw him a rope and tied up. Thank God! Armand gently pried the bundle from Cecile’s arms and helped her onto the roof and into the boat, promising he would hand the infant back the second she was settled.
Bloated animal carcasses floated by. Please don’t ask what the atrocious smell was coming from the beach towel. He couldn’t bear to explain. Few words were spoken as the men agreed to take them to St. Bernard Parish Hospital. What was there to say? Everything was surreal. Like a sci-fi horror flick. And they were the leading cast. The hospital was also under water, but rescue helicopters were expected soon. It turned out to be an inaccurate time line.
They weaved through flotsam and around snakes knotted together hanging from low-hanging tree branches. Cecile pointed to a little dog paddling furiously, his eyes bulging with fear. Twice he slipped under the water, unable to find a foot hold.
“Help him.” Cecile cried. “You can't let him drown.”
“There's no room for him in the boat, and no place at the hospital,” said the boatman as he stared, expressionless, as the pup sunk under the water again.
Cecile screamed with all her strength. “No, NO, HELP HIM! Armi, please, you can't let him die too.”
Oh damn it. Armand jumped into the black, rancid water and swam toward the little dog. At least he could save someone. He grabbed the pup by the scruff of the neck and hauled him back to the boat. Tossing the canine over the side of the boat, Armand clung to the hull. “He can have my space.”
“For Christ sake. Get in the boat before you get bit by a copperhead and we have to save your ass . . . again!” The man pulled on Armand's belt and heaved him over the side, nearly capsizing the small vessel.
The trembling little dog curled up beside Cecile. “It's okay, Neptune, you’re safe now,” Cecile purred.
“Neptune?” Armand raised an eyebrow.
“Because you pulled him from the sea.”
At the hospital, Armand found a doctor tending to patients on the rooftop, waiting for Air Rescue helicopters to transport people to hospitals out of the flood zones. The doctor briefly examined Cecile, shaking his head. Without any medications to sedate her, it was near impossible to pry the child from her arms. He spoke quietly to Armand, who strained to hear over the white noise rushing around in his head.
“What is her history?” The doctor said, shaking his head. “The drastic drop in barometric pressure caused women all over the area into premature labor. He was too young. If he would have had a few more weeks . . .” His voice trailed off.
“This is her third stillbirth,” Armand said.
“She is very weak. Next time you'll lose her too. There can't be any more babies.”
Armand reached inside the bundle and stroked the tiny cheek of his son one last time before handing him to the staff. Good bye, son. We loved you. The body would be transported with the other critical patients to another hospital. The doctor was right. This had to be their last child.
Cecile mumbled incoherently, “The potion, must drink the potion.”
“What’s she babbling about?” Armand asked.
“I have no idea. She is delirious.”