By Lesley L. Smith
When I opened the front door, my go-bag on my back, the humidity was as dense as an anchor. The scent of rot and dead fish assailed me. Ick. I never seemed to get used to the smell; it took me by surprise every time I opened the door.
The ‘Welcome to The Crescent City’ mat squished, water under my feet making a run for it. “Shoot.” It meant there was a leak somewhere. But the herringbone-patterned red-brick front walkway was clear—which was good. Generations of Freeman women had strutted down that walkway in their Sunday finest on the way to church. I remembered one special day when me and Mom, Grandma, and Great-Granny all wore similar flowered dresses; I’d felt like a princess. I still had all those dresses up in the attic; so far, they were safe.
I didn’t really have time to do a perimeter check, but now I didn’t have a choice.
I raced around my home checking sandbags, Grandpa’s words ringing in my ears, ‘It’s down to you, Leticia. Freemans been living here on this land for over a century. You got to protect it, Girl.’ Our home was located on a small rise in the French Quarter—basically, we were the highest point for miles around. It was a huge responsibility protecting the last surviving part of the city.
Our once-beautiful landscaping was all dead. The magnolia we’d gathered greens from at Christmas was brittle and lifeless. Grandma’s favorite, the hot-pink Bougainvillea, was a bundle of twigs. The jasmine I’d helped Grandpa plant was covered in brown leaves. I’d never again smell the rich, sweet fragrance of jasmine; I sniffed and smelled only watery death.
But the stained-glass windows, fleurs-de-lis, commissioned by great-great-Grandpa, were as brilliant as ever, a kaleidoscope of colors. They were on the historic registry, and Mom and Dad had posed in front of one for their wedding photo. I’d hoped someday me and my husband would pose in front of one; that didn’t seem possible now. At any rate, they were worth protecting.
On the other side of the sandbag barrier, the Gulf of Mexico surged as if taking a breath. It should be called the Gulf of Louisiana now since it covered so much of the Pelican State.
“I’m trying, Grandpa, I’m trying.” I knew it was important; family traditions were important, even though I was the only family left, even though I was the only person left in town. Sometimes, I wished… But, no. I shook my head. “Tradition.” It was okay to talk to yourself when you were the only one around for miles and miles.
Finally, after I’d made the whole circuit, I noticed one of the bags near the front door had been dislodged, and a small stream of water crawled over the low spot like a tenacious turtle. I quickly set it right, shipshape and Bristol fashion, as Grandpa would have said. He’d been in the U.S. Navy when there’d still been a United States. He was so proud of his service; it made me proud to see his shoulders thrown back.
I did not think about what could have dislodged the heavy sandbag.
I stepped off the walkway, into my canoe, placed my bag next to me on the seat, cast off, and was on my way. My bag had all my emergency essentials, like a water purifier and family photos, because these days, you never knew. You never knew when you might have to suddenly run–or row–for your life.
Today on my salvage quest, I was headed for the south side of the quarter. There was a hardware store near St. Louis Cathedral that I was optimistic about; it seemed tall enough for a second story.
I paddled silently along Dumaine St., past Dauphine, Bourbon, and Royal Streets, the tops of the historic submerged buildings standing sentinel along the way. The delicate wrought iron railings and filigrees were starting to rust, but they were still pretty.
All the festive celebrations, the melodic notes of Saxes, the strident tones of trombones and trumpets dancing on the air as people frolicked on the cobblestones, were over and done. Today I heard only a tiny drip, drip of the smelly water off the paddle when I lifted it out of the water.
To the south, the pointy triple spires of the cathedral, rising out of the water like a beacon, kept me from getting lost.
The sun came out from behind the clouds, and the humidity decreased slightly.
Unfortunately, the hardware store was a bust. It was over twenty feet tall, so it should have a second floor, but I couldn’t get to it from outside if there was one. I could swim through the submerged front doors but wasn’t yet desperate enough to dive into the dark, murky water containing who knew what.
Grandpa’s ‘Language, Letitia!’ admonition was hard to forget, so in my disappointment, I said only, “Darn it.”
Then, I heard a strange noise. People? I froze, trying to figure out what direction it was coming from.
I turned and paddled down a back alley near the cathedral. As I got closer, I realized the noise was a dog barking. When was the last time I’d seen a dog?
Still far away, I whispered, “Hush, little dog. You don’t want to draw attention.” I turned a corner and saw an adorable barking border collie on top of a roof. The dog was about two feet tall with long fur, pert ears, and a half-black half-white face. He seemed to be barking at a mostly submerged boat. Why?
The roof he stood on was only about two feet above the water—easily within alligator-pouncing distance if there were any around. I couldn’t let a cute canine get chewed on my watch.
I paddled up to the side of the building opposite the boat silently and said quietly to the dog, “Here, Boy. Come on, Boy.” Dogs were supposed to have good hearing, right?
He stopped barking immediately. Within moments he bounded across the roof to the edge near me and started barking again, tail wagging wildly. His eyes were deep and blue, and he pranced back and forth near the roof edge as if he couldn’t hold in his excitement.
“Hush, Boy.” I reached out my hand so he could smell it.
He quieted as he sniffed me. But his tail-wagging didn’t slow down. He was not noticeably wet—which was odd. Either he’d been here long enough to dry, or he’d been in a boat, which was now nowhere to be seen. Could it be the submerged boat on the other side of the building? What about his people? What happened to them? Frankly, I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
“How did you get here, boy?” I slowly scrutinized my surroundings, but I didn’t see hide nor hair of anyone. “Where are your people?” A chill snaked down my back.
I didn’t hear anything but the collie breathing heavily and maybe the swish of his tail flying through the air.
There was no sign of anyone around to take care of him. Except me.
As he stood on the edge of the roof, I looked him in the eyes and saw a kindred spirit, a survivor. A friend. We could help each other.
I patted my hands on my lap. “Here, Boy. Get in the canoe.”
He jumped in immediately. I knew just what to call him: Bristol.
I soundlessly started paddling away. The submerged boat had me spooked. What happened to it? Did a gator attack it? “Let’s go home, Bristol. But I need you to be quiet. No more barking.”
I carefully, quietly, and quickly paddled toward home. Bristol started growling when I was about thirty feet from my front door.
“What did I say? Hush, Bristol.”
But he bared his teeth, staring toward my front door, head down, and hackles up. Something was definitely wrong.
I stopped the canoe, hiding behind a once majestic, but now dead, Magnolia tree.
The biggest gator I’d ever seen, over fifteen feet long, waddled on my now-flooded front walkway. Its stumpy legs didn’t slow it down, as its beady eyes scanned right and left.
The sandbags had been pushed aside, and water poured over the top.
Oh, no. The doors were not air-tight, so the first floor would already be filling with disgusting brackish water. I’d moved everything movable up to the second floor, but all the furniture…
“Shh, Bristol,” I whispered and looked him in the eyes.
He looked me in the eyes, quieting. He seemed satisfied, as if he’d done his job.
I petted him and watched the giant gator scuttling back and forth, looking for dinner. Jeez, he was like a dog with a bone. There was no way I could tangle with him or get him away from my home.
Suddenly, I had to bite back a sob. I buried my face in Bristol’s soft fur. Get it together, Letitia.
Bristol snuffled in response.
Deep down, I’d known it was going to happen eventually. I would have to leave my home someday. I was the last person in The Big Easy. I was the last person to try to save a little piece of our once-great city, its food and music, its architecture, and most of all, its amazing people.
But it was over. New Orleans was over, gone. All those wonderful traditions gone. My people were gone; I was the last.
I blinked back nascent tears and leaned away from Bristol.
He looked up at me with trust in his eyes, trust that I’d take care of him, that we’d make it together.
I backpedaled and soundlessly turned the canoe around.
“Looks like we’ve got a new adventure on our hands, Bristol,” I whispered. At least I had a new friend, too.
He dipped his head once and settled in the bottom of the boat near my feet.
I started paddling north.
Grandpa would understand.
Lesley L. Smith has an M.F.A in Creative Writing. Her short stories have appeared in various venues including Fiction River Wishes and The Wordsmith Journal. She has published several novels, including The
Quantum Cop, Conservation of Luck, and Kat Cubed. Check her out online at http://www.lesleylsmith.com.