I’ve walked along the old bones of New Orleans’ streets on four separate occasions over the last 15 years.
It draws me back by invisible strings again and again, whispering voodoo love spells and jazz music in my ear. When I think of it, flashes of street parades rife with gleaming gold trumpets and saxophones and crashing cymbals dance through my mind.
It conjures the ghost of my younger self floating amid whirling nighttime lights on Bourbon Street, usually accompanied by my friends Michelle and Emily, who I’ve known for over 25 years. We reunite in this place about every three or five years to sip cocktails on creaky, illuminated verandas at night.
New Orleans’ shiny allure has, surprisingly, not at all begun to tarnish. The city is at once alive and bursting with color, art, music and elegant homes and shops…
And filled with mystery and a dark past.
Every time I come, I visit the decrepit and elegant cemeteries, and often glimpse the ominous “X” marks of homes where bodies were counted after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.
On this visit, Michelle — who lives an hour away in Baton Rouge — took Emily and I someplace we’d never been before. A place that meant something to our own history together as friends: the old plantation where scenes from Interview with the Vampire (one of our favorite movies when we were kids) was filmed…
Oak Alley Plantation, located 50 miles west of New Orleans in the small Louisiana town of Vacherie, is visible from the Mississippi River’s west bank. Built in 1837, this enormous sugar plantation was once home to a succession of wealthy owners… and hundreds of slaves.
Days of rain had left the mammoth oak trees soggy and the air smelling of damp earth. The house tour, we were told, wouldn’t start for nearly an hour so we were pointed in the direction of the ‘slave quarters’ — wooden reproductions of the tiny shacks the slaves had lived in.
We filed quietly past the closet-sized cabins, photographs of the slaves, and a museum displaying the iron shackles and whips used to keep those poor souls in line. It filled me with the same uncomfortable shame I always have when reminded of my country’s horrendous history of slavery. I felt familiar despair at the injustice and hate that has always resided in some human hearts.
The house tour that came next only deepened my discomfort.
One by one, we filed inside and into the large sitting room on the ground floor. Lit with old-fashioned style fixtures, it featured a grand fireplace, ornate crystal chandelier and handsome 19th century furniture.
As our guide Anthony spoke about the history of the house and led us forward into the dining room, its previous owners’ eyes gazed upon us from nearly every wall.
We ascended a wood staircase to the second floor, listening to its ancient groans and protests as we climbed. For each of the bedrooms, Anthony stood just inside to talk about how the day would begin and end for those who’d inhabited them during the sugar cane days and during the Civil War. At the last room however, the Lavender Room, I noticed our guide appear to pause uncertainly outside the door instead of going in as he had with the other rooms.
Peering back at the crowd of tourists were the dark eyes of a doll, seated in a child’s wooden chair. It sent chills down my arms and I retreated to the hallway quickly.
Outside on the second story veranda, I inhaled the pungent air, glad to be released from the uneasy walls of the home. Through the gnarled reaching branches of the soldier-like oak trees, I could just make out the Mississippi River beyond the levee. I imagined scened of old-time steamboats chugging slowing up the river, and horse-drawn carriages arriving with well-turned out guests in bonnets and top hats.
As we were exiting, I approached Anthony who was waiting near the huge front doors of the house for his next tour to start. I had to ask: have you ever seen a ghost here?
The same look he’d had standing outside the door of the last bedroom again crossed his face. “Once when I first started doing tours, I was standing in the Lavender Room and suddenly I couldn’t speak. It was like the air had gone out of me and my voice wouldn’t work.”
He glanced quickly at the woman greeting the next round of guests who were beginning to line up at the door, then continued. “I went back into the hallway and I was ok again. I’ve never seen anything, but that experience was real strange. I haven’t gone back in that room since then.”
The gray clouds above the plantation were again beginning to send fat droplets to the ground. We marched quickly to Michelle’s car and pulled onto the road in the direction of New Orleans, the hauntingly beautiful city that lures me repeatedly back.
Where the spirit of the South lives on forever.
Categories: United States