In the beginning, there was the Word, and the Void, and Ice in the North and Fire in the South, and the Great Waters. A universe created in a day and a night, or billions of years, or seven days, or a cycle of creations and destructions. The waters were made to recede to reveal the land, or the land was formed from the coils of a serpent, or half of a slain ocean goddess, or the flesh and bones and skull of a giant, or a broken egg. Or an island of curdled salt appeared when the sea was churned by a spear. Or the land was carried up to the surface of the waters by a water beetle, or a muskrat, or a turtle, or two water loons. However the world was made, it teemed with life; populated by beings who evolved from a single cell, or who were molded from clay or carved out of wood or found trapped in a clam shell. They wandered up from their underworld of seven caves, or fell through a hole in the sky, or they crawled out of the insect world that lies below. All of these stories, these beginnings, are true, and yet none of them are the absolute truth; they are simultaneous in spite of paradox. The world is a house built from contradictory blueprints, less a story than it is a conversation. But it is not a world without complications. Not without conflicts. Not without seams.
One of those complications was a man named Jude Dubuisson, flesh and blood and divine all at once, who stared out at Jackson Square, at the broad white expanse of St. Louis Cathedral, at the plump, fluttering mass of pigeons, at the tidal ebb and flow of tourists on the cobblestones, and saw none of it. He was likewise deaf to his surroundings: the constant mutter of the crowd, the hooves clopping on pavement, and the hooting echo of the steamboat’s calliope coming from the river. His attention was fixed inward, on thoughts of the old life he’d done his best to forget. All those years of standing between the worlds of gods and men, of the living and the dead.
For his entire adult life, he’d straddled the seam between two worlds and brought trouble to both: a walking, breathing conflict with a fuck-you grin. That had been before the storm, though. Those memories belonged to a different man. In the six years since those fateful days in 2005, he’d tried to put it all behind him. Tried to ignore all the impossible things he knew. But the last few days, the past was like a storm cloud on the horizon, a rumble of thunder that refused to stay silent, a gloom that refused to disperse.
The past just refused to stay dead.
Jude was what the more liberal-minded in the city these days — those for whom the term “mixed race” sounded somehow offensive — would call “Creole,” and what older black folks referred to as “red-boned,” some indeterminate mix of white and African heritages along with whatever else had made it into the gumbo. All Jude knew was that he had light brown skin, a white mother, and a father he’d never met. The rest of the world always seemed more concerned about his ethnicity than he was.
He kept his hair shaved close to his scalp and a scruff of beard that was more stubble than style. He wore jeans and a long-sleeved dress shirt despite the cloying wet shroud that clung to New Orleans in the summer, the heat that made any act an effort, even breathing. The damp shirt pressed tight against his skin, the sweat tickling down the small of his back. Jude reached up, absently, to wipe off his face with the handkerchief his mother had taught him a gentleman always carries, but stopped himself, pulled from his introspection by the self-conscious awareness of the leather gloves he had on. He tucked his hand back into his lap, out of sight.
Not that anyone paid him any attention. He’d been out on the corner right across from Muriel’s since early that morning, had set up folding chairs and his rickety-ass table, laid out a chalkboard sign, a cash box, and a battered paperback atlas the same as he did most days, but in all the hours he’d been in the Square, only a few people had bothered to ask what the sign meant. None sat down. His services, unlike the tarot card readers and the brass bands and the art dealers, weren’t part of the cliché of the Quarter, and thus flew under the average tourist’s radar.
But today the lack of clients suited his mood. He’d have found it hard to feign interest in anyone’s problems with the way his thoughts had been circling nonstop. Pacing back and forth, as tense and feckless as an expectant father. Or a criminal awaiting execution.
A young street performer — Timmy? Tommy? Jude could never remember — stopped in front of Jude’s table, casting a long shadow. Jude frowned at the intrusion into his thoughts, even as he appreciated the shade. The white kid’s face, streaked with the sweaty remnants of clown paint, was split by an unguarded grin. He wore a golf cap and a tweed vest with no shirt on underneath. Less than ten years separated the two men, maybe as little as five, but to Jude’s eyes he was just a boy.
Grown more used to silence than speech, Jude had to search for his voice before he could speak. “You need something?” he asked, the words scratchy.
“About to ask you the same thing,” the boy said, pulling off the cap and swiping sweat from his forehead. “Headed to the grocery ’round the corner.” He gestured with the limp hat in the store’s direction before slipping it back onto his head.
Jude shook his head. “Thanks anyway.”
“Ain’t nothin’,” he said. He turned to go, then looked back. “You coming tomorrow night?” Jude shrugged and raised his eyebrows. The boy threw his hands into the air. “I only told you, like, twelve times already. My band finally got that gig? At the Circle Bar?”
“Oh, right,” Jude said. He imagined being crammed into a tight space with a crowd of strangers and lied to the kid. “Yeah, I’ll try to make it.”
The boy’s grin widened into a smile that took another five years off his age and made Jude feel like an older, more cynical version of himself. Tommy moved on to the next table, the sole of one of his shoes flapping, pitiful, on the street.
Jude sighed, inhaling the rich odor of the Quarter: stale beer and musky humanity and the moist, dark scent of the river. It was hard to live as he did, hidden in the seams between the life he had known and this new life he wore like a mask, but — because of those things he tried not to think about — Jude belonged there.
Or so he believed.
A short while later, Jude got his first and only customers of the day, a couple of out-of-towners. College kids, judging by the Greek letters on their T-shirts and the bright green plastic drink cups in their hands. She was a white girl who had spent hours in the sun darkening her skin, and he was vaguely West Asian, but spoke with a tap-water American accent. Lovers, Jude guessed, from the way the boy rested his hand on her shoulder, and the way the girl introduced the both of them — Mandy and Dave — like the conjunction made them a single unit. The girl seemed by far the more eager of the two. When she asked Jude what his sign meant, Dave looked toward the other side of the Square, as if searching for an escape.
“It means what it says,” Jude said. “If you’ve lost something, I can tell you where it is.”
“Like, anything?” Mandy asked, glancing at Dave to see if he was listening.
“Yeah,” Jude said, “like, anything.” She seemed not to notice the droll mockery in his voice, but Dave turned and frowned at her.
“It’s a scam,” Dave said.
“First try is free if you’re not satisfied,” Jude said. “Ten bucks if you are.”